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Amazon censoring books with "adult content"? Feels like the 1950s...

Amazon's decision last weekend to make their website more "family friendly" can be described as nothing less than a complete balls-up.

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Amazon's decision last weekend to make their website more "family friendly" can be described as nothing less than a complete balls-up. The retail website has applied a filtering system, which means that any novel seen as containing "adult material" loses its sales rank, and therefore does not appear in some searches and best-seller lists. However, a "glitch" (technical term for "massive screw-up") has meant that some well known authors' works have been included in this filter, including Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain" and DH Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover".

"Glitch my ass" screamed outraged Twitter and Facebook users. "It's as if Amazon said 'An idea! Let's get rid of all the queers and perverts!!!' and then reset all their search algorithms" tweeted Zoe Margolis, author of "Girl with a One Track Mind". The internet is buzzing with complaints, and I can understand why, Amazon should never have implemented a filter unless they were sure it actually worked.

Yet, whilst conspiracy theories are being thought up about fascist aliens taking over Amazon, surely the main issue is why does the site suddenly want to become more "family friendly"? The decision seems completely unexplained, with Amazon merely commenting that it was "in consideration of our entire customer base". Of course, mummies don't want their precious ten year olds buying a pornographic book, but I find ordering stuff off Amazon highly confusing, and I'm twenty-one. Just because a sex book comes up in a best-seller list, doesn't mean a kid is going to buy it. For a start, they'd need to be in possession of a credit or debit card, and then they'd need to manoeuvre their way through the complicated personal details bit. In any case, what fifteen year old boy would pay for porn when he could get it free off the internet? Sarcastic comments aside, bookshops don't have these "adult content" filters, so why does Amazon need one?

Even if Amazon does fix its little "glitch", it is unclear what their filter system will regard as "un-family friendly". Some of the best novels ever written contain scenes of a highly sexual nature, but should they be hidden away from young eyes? Personally, I'd much rather children were introduced to the big bad world of sex through well-written literature, than through Playboy.

The internet has increased the accessibility of pornography to an already highly-sexed up world, meaning that Amazon's vague attempt to protect children is completely futile. All it has done is annoyed a lot of people, and given bloggers something else to rant about.


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15 Comments

Chris Burgess Posted on Saturday 18 Apr 2009

The recent problem with the Amazon Filter was the delisting of books with Pro-Gay and Lesbian themes. This is a more important issue, as the filter is being misused to discriminatingly target books with a positive view of homosexuality, seemingly supporting a homophobic agenda. It remains the case that typing the search term "Homosexuality" on Amazon results in "Can Homosexuality be Healed" and "A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality" as the top results.

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Gore Posted on Saturday 18 Apr 2009

Anna, I like how this article isn't sensational about this story. One thing though, you said:

"surely the main issue is why does the site suddenly want to become more "family friendly"? The decision seems completely unexplained"

I don't think this is about a paternal 'attempt to protect children'. I think it's more to do with them not wanting any books called 'big swinging cocks' or whatever automatically appearing on their bestseller lists or anywhere prominent on their site, however unlikely that might be. That seems pretty reasonable. Waterstones don't put porn or erotica in their shop window.

Chris: 'Can Homosexuality Be Healed' still appears on the search because it's not classed as 'gay and lesbian' literature, because it isn't. It's under 'Christianity', because it's a Christian book, so it wasn't culled by the glitch. Amazon don't have a homophobic agenda - why on earth would they have? Do you think they have decided to reach out to the Christian fundamentalist niche or something? I'm pretty sure that's a smaller market than the gay market they've accidentally alienated. They've just messed up an algorithm and now they're fixing it. They've already paid in booksales, there's no point in vilifying them as bigots too.

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Richard Mitchell Posted on Sunday 19 Apr 2009

Perhaps they're also trying to save face after a few embarrassing stories like these (NSFW):
http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/10/09/amazon_outrage/
http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/04/12/amazon_rabbit_mail/
http://www.theregister.co.uk/2004/06/14/amazon_toys_search/
etc. etc.

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Rory Posted on Sunday 19 Apr 2009

Perhaps they are worried Obama will use the "Cybersecurity Act" (http://cdt.org/security/CYBERSEC4.pdf) to shut them down if they start publishing things which offend him?

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Jason Rose Posted on Sunday 19 Apr 2009

The first two links are a bit different but the third one is exactly what they're cracking down on - "Now, I have a two-year-old who would probably love a Pull Along Spot The Dog. I am, however, certain that copies of "Female Ejaculation and the G-Spot" or "How to Spot a Bastard by His Star Sign" are a little premature."

Now, talking as someone who isn't an idiot... you don't search for "spot" and assume only spot the dog comes up. You search for "spot the dog". The other two titles both contain the word "spot" so it makes sense for them to come up!

But I think that it makes sense to hide them. If I search for g-spot then that would make sense to come up. Same with ejaculation or bastard.... but if I'm searching for something mundane then I am unlikely to be looking for sexual-based books. I can understand that Amazon is censoring books from the search - you can still find and buy these books though! And if they're fixing the glitch that removes books about homosexuality from the lists then that's fine - I suspect that they'll keep dubious titles from the results page though.

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George Posted on Sunday 19 Apr 2009

Forgive me but statements such as "Amazon should never have implemented a filter unless they were sure it actually worked" only reveal a poor understanding of programming and of software design in general. With all my respect, I think we can rest assured that the highly skilled programmers employed by Amazon know their jobs very well, and in any case better than you or I do.

To clarify, this was not a programming mistake but rather a mistake in the filter's conceptual design. It would have been pretty much impossible for Amazon to identify through testing, even if the poor programmers had to try every possible search query every time they updated the algorithm.

For an example of an actual programming mistake in a search algorithm have a look here: http://news.softpedia.com/news/Google-Blacklists-the-Entire-Internet-103431.shtml

On the other hand, the Amazon filter worked and it worked perfectly well - it was the initial requirement that was ill-thought of. And this was clearly just a minor conceptual mistake which was immediately corrected, making all this just a giant non-story. Let us not forget that designing software can be an incredibly complicated task and even a tiny omission may have cataclysmic effects - at the end of the day, some mistakes are bound to happen.

"bookshops don't have these "adult content" filters, so why does Amazon need one?"

Because Amazon is on the internets - in a bookshop 'adult books' are just put on the appropriate shelf. You don't usually find hardcore porn on the same shelf with Winnie the Pooh, do you?

To sum up, I think that suggesting this was a deliberate attempt to suppress the LGBT community is an exaggerated and offensive attempt at creating a story. Instead of trying to make a PC statement out of nothing, I suggest we take a look outside our bubbles and focus on the real issues concerning the repression of the LGBT community: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8005420.stm

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Mr Net Neutrality Posted on Sunday 19 Apr 2009

Lol what we see read and do on the net is very controlled by the organisations that we thrive off, Facebook, Myspace and Amazon included. Worying about filters on books is small game how about filters on what we can acces altogether. Its creeping up on us and with 21CN ( BTs current rebuild of telephone line system due in 2012 ) just round the corner this is the issue we really have to solve to send a message to people like Amazon. To be fair to Amazon, they are just doing what google does. Turn safe search off and search as you normally would U'll find alot of things you dont want or intend to find and similarly might be looking for. At the end of the day the net is for all so a level of filtering is necessary and mistakes happen, just a bad mix in this particular case.

To look at this issue from a purely LGBT perspective is fairly narrow minded, and to be fair to Amazon i don't think they meant for 1 minute to target LGBT out there. Their actions are by no means plausible and they've done the right thing and sorted it out once they discovered it.

Books are one thing but what if oneday we all logged in and had to pay to be on this site. Sounds stupid but T mobile, BT and many other networks are setting up to do exactly this. Click my name or the link below for more on net neutrality and I think you'll realise that although the direct problem here is the targetting of a particular group, or filtering what we see on a site, its something were all going to experience on a much bigger scale and its the wider problem and consequences that we have to worry about.

http://mashable.com/2009/04/03/mobile-neutrality/

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Chris Northwood Posted on Sunday 19 Apr 2009

That video completely fails to represent the issue. I don't want to get too off-topic, but anyone who watches that video should do so with a huge bucket of salt.

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Anon Posted on Sunday 19 Apr 2009

Anyone who watches any video should do so with a huge bucket of salted popcorn >.>

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Mark A. Michaels Posted on Monday 20 Apr 2009

Those who think this is over are mistaken. Amazon has not come clean about either the "glitch" or its policy, nor has it fully fixed the problem, if that was ever the intention.

I believe that amazon was being truthful when it claimed that GLBT material was not the only target and that over 50,000 titles were affected, but that may be the only forthright statement the company has made on this subject. Both our books, along with many other titles on sexuality, were de-ranked. And this issue isn't limited to books. We've made two instructional DVDs; both are explicit; one was (and remains) de-ranked and the other was not, which just illustrates the arbitrary nature of this "policy."

As of this morning and ever since our books were de-ranked, name searches for myself have not come up with the print editions of either book. The Kindle versions show up, as does our still-ranked DVD. It's also clear that some kind of filtering is in place for adult material on my amazon homepage. Given my browsing history, there ought to be a lot more sex-related material, as there used to be. It's also evident that our de-ranked DVD is no longer being paired with other films under the "Frequently Bought Together" listing.

Amazon has enormous power, if not a near-monopoly. These measures limit customer access to our books and one of our DVDs, making them harder to find for those who are actively seeking them and directing those who might be interested to other products that haven't arbitrarily been designated as "adult." This is a pernicious form of corporate censorship.

Amazon secretly tags certain materials as adult, gives no notice to authors (or producers, in the case of the DVD, I checked) and provides no recourse for challenging that designation. This uproar may have been caused by a technical error that led to the inclusion of many additional books in the "adult" category, but the attitude itself, the utter lack of transparency, and the continuing failure to respond in a meaningful way are the real issues.

Here's what amazon should do, if it wants any of my business back (though I'd probably limit purchases to electronics and the like.) Come clean about the existence of this policy; let the public know exactly what that policy is and what criteria are used when materials are designated as "adult;" provide authors with a mechanism to challenge the designation; stop hiding materials from customers who might want to purchase them; make the ranking system fair and accurate by including all books and DVDs in its catalog. If amazon deems it necessary to have a filtering system, a safe search approach would be a much less damaging way to do it, but I'm not convinced that such a feature would be necessary.

The policy, not the "glitch," is the problem. It always has been. The glitch just brought attention to a secret policy that is unacceptable in its own right. All authors and all readers should be very concerned about this egregious abuse of corporate power.

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Anon Posted on Monday 20 Apr 2009

The entire point of the changes were that people with a book called "Spot goes on holiday" can end up with "Finding the g-spot for dummies" and frankly who cares if you don't have as much sex on the homepage? You can still find it. That's one of the worst complaints I've ever seen about a company - "they've made adult material more difficult for children to find!" Amazon are fixing it and will fix it. Nothing has been removed from their shelves. Just look harder. If people want tantric sex guides then they can still find them. Maybe they're more likely to use your website instead of amazon. Who knows?

Comment edited by a moderator.

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Mark A. Michaels Posted on Tuesday 21 Apr 2009

Sorry, but that answer just doesn't cut it. The "G-spot" isn't in any of our titles (says more about you than anything else,) and no. . .people can't find our works easily, at least not as easily as other books that haven't been designated 'adult.' That's a big handicap. The internet is all about instant answers, and if the books aren't there up front, sales plummet. This is all about an uneven playing field. I'd reluctantly accept a safe-search option and some mechanism for challenging the designation, but without that, it's corporate censorship, pure and simple.

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Anon Posted on Wednesday 22 Apr 2009

The g-spot was in a previous example someone gave. And it's not a handicap for a book to be labeled adult if its peers are labeled. It's nothing to do with an uneven playing field - if your books are adult in nature and others aren't then EXPECT to get less sales. Tough luck if you're not good enough at marketing to sell better than that!

The safe-search option would be a fine idea. Customers, upon entering an 18+ card, could choose to opt out of the safe search. And challenging the designation would be good too, since it would remove some things that shouldn't be filtered. In the meantime, however, I would suggest advertising elsewhere, recommending the books on other websites, plugging it outside of Amazon. That's called marketing and it's quite useful if you're trying to make a good profit!

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Chris Northwood Posted on Wednesday 22 Apr 2009

Why would you have to put an 18+ credit card to search for adult books? Google image search trusts people enough with a radio button. I presume the intention behind this (although not made clear!) is as Mitch suggests above, to stop it accidentally happening.

If Amazon are going down this route though, then it should be a Safe Search type system imo.

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Christopher Posted on Monday 18 Jan 2010

Where is the best place to sell 'adult' books? I have just written one of about 60 000 words & want to self publish. It is a serious work & I hope that it will make some claim to a little literary merit. If anyone knows please will they let me know by posting a comment.

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