Amazon says listing problem was an error, not a hack

57,000 books, including gay and lesbian titles, were delisted from Amazon's search rankings

Web retailer Amazon.com blamed a glitch that knocked gay-and-lesbian-themed books out of its main product search engine on a "ham-fisted cataloging error," and disputed one man's claim that he had hacked the site to make this happen.

The problem was first reported on Sunday by author Mark Probst, who noticed that his own book, "The Filly," and other gay-themed books had had their search rankings dropped.

His report set off a firestorm in the blogosphere, where some accused the company of anti-gay censorship.

On Monday, Amazon said that the glitch didn't have to do with only gay and lesbian titles. It affected 57,310 books worldwide "in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica."

The company is still in the process of fixing the problem, Amazon spokeswoman Patricia Smith said via e-mail on Monday.

That didn't prevent one man from claiming credit for the glitch. As bloggers complained that Amazon's explanation didn't adequately explain what had happened, a hacker going by the name of Weev said that he had caused the problem by exploiting a common Web programming error on the Amazon site.

Bloggers quickly debunked Weev's claims, saying that it did not appear as though his attack would actually work.

Weev's claims are false, Amazon's Smith said.

Former Amazon employee Mike Daisey said that the problem really did appear to have been caused by an employee mistake.

A friend within the company told him that someone working on Amazon's French site mistagged a number of keyword categories, including the "Gay and Lesbian" category, as pornographic, using what's known internally as the Browse Nodes tool. Soon the mistake affected Amazon sites worldwide, Daisey said in an interview. "If you use that tool in one site, it affects every site in Amazon. So the guy screwed up in France and it propagated everywhere," he said.

Daisey, a monologist who spent three years at Amazon, was amused that Weev's claims had been so widely reported, given that Weev has made a name for himself as an online "troll" who lies for fun. "I think it's hilarious that he's gotten as much traction as he has with the story because his whole modus operandi is about pranking people."

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Robert McMillan

IDG News Service
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