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Amazon's 'gay' book debacle: hack or glitch?

What really happened that caused hundreds of books with homosexual themes to disappear from Amazon's best-seller lists?

Amazon's much-discussed gay-themed book debacle is degenerating into a case of 'he said, she said' - or, to be more accurate, 'he said, they sort of implied'.

In one corner, you have a hacker insisting he caused hundreds of Amazon books to lose their sales ranks and disappear from best-seller lists. In the other, you have Amazon using an unusual idiom to vaguely explain the error without directly denying the hacker's claims.

Amazon's PR guard may be on high right now, but that's not keeping insiders from sharing their takes on what actually went down. New insights from an unnamed Amazon employee, along with fresh statements from the self-proclaimed Amazon hacker, are filling in some blanks in the controversy dubbed by Twitterers as '#amazonfail'.

The Amazon gay book mess

Here's the story: over the weekend, something occurred within Amazon's system that caused nearly 60,000 books to be stripped of their sales ranks. A sales rank shows how well a book is selling on the site and helps it secure spots in Amazon searches and best-seller lists.

Sunday, an author noticed many titles with gay- and lesbian-themed topics being affected - everything from Annie Proulx's 'Brokeback Mountain' to James Baldwin's 'Giovanni's Room'. When he contacted Amazon, he says he was informed that the change took place because the books had 'adult' content.

By that night, global protests had gained momentum, and Twitter had taken on the role of the unofficial meeting point for online surfers seeking answers.

Monday, a hacker who calls himself "Weev" said he caused the whole thing by exploiting an Amazon.com feature for reporting inappropriate content.

Shortly after our story on his claim was published, an Amazon spokesperson emailed me at PC Advisor's sister title PCWorld.com with a statement describing the issue as "an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error".

When I inquired further about the cause of that "cataloging error" and whether a hack could have led to it, he neglected to provide a direct answer. After initially chastising me via email for even asking (first response received: "Did you read the statement?"), he went on to respond only by resending a piece of his original statement with two added words: "This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error by Amazon."

Interestingly, the Los Angeles Times reported that the same spokesman did not respond to its follow-up requests for clarification on the cause of the error.

An insider's perspective

While the company may not want to officially sway from its oddly chosen and meat-oriented adjective (ham-fisted?), someone outside of the public relations wing is providing a bit more detailed information.

An Amazon.com employee described as working "closely with the systems involved in the glitch" tells the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that an Amazon employee from France had "filled out a field incorrectly", causing the "adult" setting to be toggled on all of the books' profiles.

"People got pulled away from their Easter when this whole thing broke," the employee, who spoke to the paper on the condition of anonymity, is quoted as saying. "It was just a screw-up."

The other side

On the other end of the spectrum, the single-syllabled "Weev" agreed to an email-based interview with The Wall Street Journal. In the interview, he maintains that he was behind the incident - although he clarified that it wasn't technically a hack.

"I was trying to prove that user-generated reputation systems are fallacious and subject to biased gaming by a small few," he's quoted as saying.

As for the discrepancies in the stories, "Weev" states that he "conducted a controlled experiment" and "saw results". As for Amazon's stance, he suggests the company may have its own motivations for covering up what he sees as the truth.

Transparency troubles

So what's the real truth here? At this point, any separation of fact from fiction involves some subjective and tricky judgment calls. Could the hack (or troll, if you prefer) have been feasible? It's hard to say.

One blogger initially called the tactics into question, though he has since revised his posting and shifted some parts of his stance. Others have questioned why the exploit "Weev" describes doesn't work anymore; he says the company removed the inappropriate content reporting function shortly after the issue became apparent.

The anonymous Amazon insider certainly does add some weight to the idea of an actual internal glitch. My question, though, is if the explanation is so simple, why do Amazon's spokespeople seem so hesitant to directly discuss it? Why haven't they said that, or even directly answered questions as to whether a hacker had anything to do with the "error"?

Regardless of what actually happened in Amazon's databases this weekend, the lack of transparency may be what leaves the longest-lasting impression.

It's an unfortunate approach to a story garnering global attention, and - I think it's safe to say - it's what comes across as being most "ham-fisted" of all.

JR Raphael blogs for PCWorld.com

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