I've already wasted far too much time on this #amazonfail thing. But this guest post by Mary Hodder of Dabble.com was just too easy a target to pass up. The last few paragraphs really make the bulk of her point so I'm going to quote those and address each one.
This of course doesn’t explain how the problem arose two months ago, and why when Amazon was notified, they didn’t look into it then. I would suggest that the same underlying assumptions that drove their classification and algorithm system to be built to filter “gay” into “adult” also led their investigations in February and March to lead to nothing. It was only public outrage this past weekend that caused them to look harder, beyond their own assumptions, to find the underlying problem.
Well, to be fair, if you click on the link you'll find the author of that post didn't really try hard to get heard. I received a damaged book a while back, sent it back to Amazon for the replacement and then got charged for 2 copies. The run around I went through with Amazon very closely resembles the author's experience. So I don't think Amazon was trying to ignore or discriminate against him.
Also to be fair, the public outrage hasn't necessarily accomplished anything that we know of. Right now Amazon has just made a brilliant PR move in that they apologized and then claimed the glitch impacted a number of books too large for anyone to verify. Doing that means no one can really know what they did or when they've fixed it.
I don't doubt Amazon will restore the sales rank of some books. My point is just to show that Amazon is walking the line between offending two opposing camps and their only real desire is to keep making money from both of them. Not to purposely discriminate against anyone (if they wanted to discriminate they could do a lot worse)
The bar for ethics in creating algorithms and classification systems should be very high. #AmazonFail proved it’s not, at least at Amazon. I would venture that Amazon’s classification and algorithm system have more of these discriminatory assumptions, and while their tagging system does allow users to correct for some of this, Amazon is using it’s internal classification system in it’s filters, not user tagging, that I can tell.
Here's where we get to the meat of the problem. Ms. Hodder is saying "the bar should be set high" but what she really means is "the bar should be set where I want it." I don't particularly agree with them but I know several fundamentalist Christians who would consider Amazon's "glitch" to be setting the bar high.
Which again brings me to my point: There are two camps in a culture war here and Amazon's just trying to stay neutral.
Because the truth is a lot of their customers consider all material regarding Gays and Lesbians to be "adult" material. Now obviously Ms. Hodder thinks that's wrong and would like Amazon to ignore those people. But she should at least be honest with herself and realize doing that isn't removing bias from the algorithm it's just putting her bias in place of the bias that's there.
While the bias that's there (post-"glitch") is Amazon's best attempt to make everyone happy (flawed as it might be)
I would suggest that the company, because of its position in the market and power over both authors and publishers, as well as users and the intellectual marketplace of idea, ought to be doing a complete and public review of their classification and algorithm assumptions. Publishers and authors should push for it, and so should users.
Right, because that info wouldn't be proprietary or anything.
That aside this just completes the thought from the last paragraph. All ranking algorithms have bias. That's by definition. Amazon is a company that wants to appeal to every side so they are trying to target the center. Which is exactly what they should be doing.
The reality is companies have an external review process and it's called their sales. If they discriminate against Gay and Lesbian material they'll find they lose sales of that material. At that point you can consider them "publicly reviewed"
Addendum: One point I forgot to make. Some would argue that the authors are penalized if Amazon removes the sales rank from their book. Ms. Hodder points out that the first result you get after searching under homosexuality is "A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality" (which I'm sure is in part due to the aforementioned "glitch"). Honestly, I consider this a bit of a non-issue. For this to hurt authors someone would have to search for the term, get that result and then just conclude no books exist. Does that seem likely? Or does it seem more likely that the person would just find another online book store and repeat the search?
2nd Addendum: Last One, I Swear, but this is important. If you want companies to be more transparent you have to accept the reasonable compromises they have to make to stay in business. It's unreasonable to expect Amazon to take a side in the culture wars.
3rd Addendum: Yeah, I said the 2nd would be the last one, sue me. But it seems from the comments I didn't make one point clear so I wanted to elaborate. This post is based on the assumption that Amazon is at least trying to treat homosexual books in the same way as heterosexual books. That's what their public statements indicate and I'm choosing to take them at their word. The issue I'm addressing is Ms. Hodder's contention that Amazon has some built in bias that they can't control and that the answer to that bias is to let her and other members of the public decide which books are acceptable. So the issue here isn't "does Amazon discriminate" it's "who should get to make the decision on what is discrimination". My contention is that Amazon should get to make it's own decisions based on it's customer base.