Amazon.com Says 'Embarrassing' Error, Not Hacker, Censored 57,310 Gay Books

After gay-themed titles disappeared from Amazon.com's search results this weekend, everyone looked for someone to blame. One hacker took credit. Some faulted an Amazon engineer in France. One source thinks it was the Conficker worm.

The only thing anyone can agree on was Amazon.com PR's complete mishandling of the situation, once people noticed that gay and lesbian books were getting marked as "adult" titles, which Amazon.com omits from its sales rankings and search results. Top flack Patty Smith didn't do much better with her latest excuseplanation:

This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection.

It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles – in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally. It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon's main product search.

Many books have now been fixed and we're in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future.

Thanks for checking in. Best regards -
Patty

In other words, it happened and they're fixing it. That's worse than nothing. So here are the rumors that have crossed our inbox:

Blame France! An Amazon.com alumnus tells us this story about "how it went down":

guy from Amazon France got confused on how he was editing the site, and mixed up "adult", which is the term they use for porn, with stuff like "erotic" and "sexuality". That browse node editor is universal, so by doing that there he affected ALL of Amazon. The [customer service] rep thought the porn question as a standard porn question about how searches work.

It's the Conficker worm! A source who claimed to work at Amazon.com told me that internal logs revealed a massive wave of automatically created accounts shortly before the incident, apparently using machines infected with the Conficker worm.

We don't have concrete evidence that it was Conficker, but a few days before the incident, there was a mass registration of accounts on Amazon. We're talking MASSIVE. I don't have an exact number, but from the regions the accounts were registered from, it looked like it followed a trend. There were quite a few from India, eastern United States as well. According to my coworkers who have done more research into it, the regions that the registrations were from followed a strong trend with the regions that Conficker has most affected.

The hacker did it. That brings us back to the claim by Weev, a well-documented website prankster, that he's responsible — a claim which Smith, the Amazon spokeswoman categorically denies. ("No," she said, in response to a series of direct questions asking if Weev was involved. Smith is quite possibly the least verbose director of corporate communications in the world.)

In his detailed explanation of how he allegedly pulled off the stunt, Weev says he hired third-world workers to break Amazon's "captcha" security, which displays a random set of numbers and letters in an effort to block hackers who attempt to mass-register accounts using scripts. Might he have hired a third party which then used a Conficker botnet to create accounts which then flagged gay and lesbian books on Amazon as inappropriate? Or is this all part of an elaborate attention-getting stunt to take credit for an Amazon employee's mistake? Either way, it's a masterstroke to tie together the month's two big Internet memes.