If you don't know what I'm talking about, start at Sex in the Public Square, which is just generally a good place to start. Caroline's got a good rundown of the situation in which books with non-explicit GLBTQ romances, nonfiction books on "alternative" sexuality (including sexuality for the disabled), and feminist theory were listed by Amazon as adult and stripped of their sales ranks. This means they didn't show up in searches, making them very difficult to buy.
Aside from issuing a statement that the removal from sales rankings was a glitch and is being fixed, Amazon has been very quiet about the whole problem. Several people have pointed out that the selective list of titles involves makes any purely technical explanation vaguely ridiculous. Over on LiveJournal, however, tehdely offers a theory:
It's obvious Amazon has some sort of automatic mechanism that marks a book as "adult" after too many people have complained about it. It's also obvious that there aren't too many people using this feature, as indicated by the easy availability (and search ranking) of pornography and sex toys and other seemingly "objectionable" materials, otherwise almost all of those items would have been flagged by this point. So somebody is going around and very deliberately flagging only LGBT(QQI)/feminist/survivor content on Amazon until it is unranked and becomes much more difficult to find. To the outside world, this looks like deliberate censorship on the part of Amazon, since Amazon operates the web application in question.
Okay, there's no certain information there, but the idea does make it a little easier to comprehend a WTF situation. Combine concerted action by an outside party with a naive (but fairly standard) and probably automated offensive content policy from the company in question, and you've got instant censorship with no action on the part of the company. In fact, Amazon would even almost be right to consider this a glitch.
The problem for the crusading censors, though, is that this isn't a glitch. This is a system set up to run on trust, and it's been gamed. And in abusing that trust and gaming that system, the censors have cost Amazon badly. Net Effect summarizes the costs to Amazon in terms of publicity so far and in the likely near future, but there are other very important considerations for Amazon.
The company has been working with authors to make Amazon the place to promote their books. Associate accounts give authors a small amount of money on every sale made with one of their links, encouraging them to push readers to Amazon. Amazon makes preorders (which can mean a lot when an author is negotiating the next contract) very simple and available earlier than nearly any other seller. And Amazon offers authors' blogs, fora for writers to interact directly with people who are considering buying their books.
All of those things are great for authors and for Amazon. None of them will make a bit of difference if an author doesn't trust Amazon to keep random whackos from arbitrarily making their books disappear. Authors will find somewhere else to promote themselves.
In other words, the censors are messing with Amazon's money, which changes the game. YouTube has had very little to lose by removing videos tagged as offensive. Flickr has had very little to lose by deleting entire portfolios when someone complains that one picture should have been labeled adult but wasn't. Same with WordPress delisting adult content. With a free service, someone gaming offensive content policies generally only costs the person whose material is removed.
This is different. Amazon has a huge incentive not to be gamed. They need to fix this and quickly. Considering the sales figures of some of the books affected, like Brokeback Mountain and Ellen DeGeneres's autobiography, they have an incentive to fix it by telling the censors to piss off. They can't sell books no one can find.
I wrote last year about the idea of offensiveness and questioned whether it was still a useful concept in a diverse, egalitarian society. This is an excellent example of what I was talking about. What does Amazon do when one group is offended by content and another is offended by censorship? They do what Amazon does--sell books.
I'm hopeful that amazonfail will be the beginning of the end for offensive content policies. I definitely think it will lead toward the elimination of any automated systems for dealing with complaints of this kind at commercial ventures. Considering the cost of dealing with complaints on a case-by-case basis, it's quite reasonable to conclude that this will, in general, result in a liberalization of content. It's just so much easier to say, "We don't censor," than, "We'll look at that book and make a decision. Yes, and that book too. And that one. And...."
It particularly easier when Amazon already has a system in place for showing people what they think they want them to see. "Yes, sir. Just log in and you can click on a button next to any content that offends you. As long as you're logged in, you won't see it anymore."
There is every reason to think that the cost of incidents like amazonfail will push technology companies to make users more responsible for the content that they see while leaving the rest of us alone, which is exactly the opposite of what the censors who are so cluelessly smug today were hoping for. Poor little moralists, but they should have seen it coming.
After all, it's the rest of us who read.
Update: See today's post for Amazon's statement on what actually happened.