#AmazonFail – Where Are We Now?

The dust appears to be finally settling on the AmazonFail story and we appear to be getting a good idea of what really happened. Here’s the best I can make of it.

Firstly Amazon really does have a system for tagging books as “adult content”. This does not surprise me. They want to sell every book they can, and at the same time avoid falling foul of the guardians of public morality. The question for them is, how to identify “adult” content.

Amazon’s problem is that it sells far too many books to make that decision easily. So it looks for ways to categorize books so that it can run automatic processes on the database. What appears to have happened here is that someone caused a mass update that affected way too many books (over 50,000 in all), and in particular lots of books of a specific type.

How that happened is unclear. I don’t for a minute believe that an evil wingnut hacker was responsible. I know it is all very dramatic, and people on the left seem to love any story that portrays them as victims, but I’m pretty sure we’d have heard about it long ago, and for different reasons, if Amazon’s systems were that vulnerable. Not do I believe that this was a deliberate policy on behalf of Amazon’s senior management. It could have been a deliberate act of an individual employee; there’s a story that it was the fault of a French employee who misunderstood nuances of English; or it could just have been a screw-up. We may never know.

Once this happened, people started to complain. They may well have got the standard, canned response about “adult” content. That’s because the people dealing with customer complaints initially had no way of knowing that something awful had happened and were simply following their script.

Then there is the whole “glitch” thing. What we need to remember here is that for non-programmers any time the computer goes wrong it is a “glitch”. When a salesman or PR person calls something a computer glitch he doesn’t always mean a hardware failure, or even an unforseen bug, he just means that something on the computer was wrong and he doesn’t know why.

The good news is that Amazon acknowledges that an error has occurred and that they intend to fix it. Apparently this is going to take time, due to the nature of their systems. That’s unfortunate, but at least the problem is in hand. Hopefully they will also look and strengthening their systems so that this sort of thing can’t easily happen again.

The bad news that it happened, because it really shouldn’t have been able to happen. As Simon Bradshaw puts it:

If it turns out that such an embarrassing incident could have arisen from a single coding error, and that Amazon’s infrastructure allowed the error to pass undetected, propagate around the world and then take days to fix, then it rather makes the world’s best-known online ordering brand look like a massive house of cards.

What does appear to have been “embarrassing and ham-fisted”, to coin a phrase, is Amazon’s PR response. Had they simply issued a brief official apology early on explaining that this was a cataloging error and they were working on it then much of the fuss would have evaporated very quickly. It is clear from this article that Amazon staff were working very hard on the problem, so it wasn’t that it was being ignored.

Instead Amazon left it to staff to leak explanations, and when an official response came there was no sign of an apology and every sign that Amazon felt it had nothing to apologize for. In particular the accusation of “misreporting” appears to have been a deliberate attempt by Amazon’s PR people to cast the company as the victim in the affair. Yeah, right, that’s an interesting new spin tactic. I can see it now:

“The current situation in the Middle East has been misreported,” said White House spokesman, Karl Rove. “Our investigation has shown that many of the people who have died have been Iranian, Jordanian, Palestinian and indeed of many other nationalities. The whole idea of a “War on Iraq” is a fabrication of the Liberal media.”

There should be two lessons here. The first is that if you make a mistake that predominantly targets a specific group of people who are sadly used to being victimized then they will jump to conclusions. Simply brushing it asides as teh gays making a fuss over nothing is not going to fix the damage.

Secondly, as the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones explains:

If WH Smith or Waterstone’s decided to put gay literature on more obscure shelves (remember – the books weren’t banned, just made harder to find) would anyone have made a fuss – or even noticed?

This happened to Amazon because they are online (and therefore easily accessible) and because they have such a dominant position in the market that a book going missing from their store is seen as a disaster by that book’s author. Unfortunately, because of the way online markets work, companies like Amazon do attain dominant positions. Economically, and eventually even politically, this is unhealthy. Incidents like this help remind us what we might be giving up by allowing Amazon to attain such dominance, and hopefully remind Amazon that just because they are dominant it doesn’t mean that they can do whatever they want.

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52 Responses to #AmazonFail – Where Are We Now?

  1. Cheryl: I’d have preferred nothing, given those choices — I don’t think the mania did the slightest bit of good. (Given what I know about big organizations, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if large swaths of Amazon think of the LBGT community as obnoxious whiners who will never be satisfied, and who can thus be ignored most of the time.)

    But I tend to think protests — particularly disorganized, amorphous ones on the Internet — too often don’t accomplish anything other than making those participating feel better about themselves. I like to see a protest with specific, defined aims and some sense of how those aims can be accomplished. This had no focus; it wasn’t as fatuous and stupid as the “Tea Bag” furor here in the States this week, but it was loud, pointless, and self-indulgent.

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