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Conspiracy theories aplenty as Amazon delists gay books

Right wingers blamed

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Gay and lesbian advocates took umbrage at Amazon.com on Monday after the online seller removed sales rankings for hundreds of books that contained homosexual themes.

The delisting, which affected books including James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, and Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx, has been taken as an affront by many because sales rankings are often used to promote specific titles. Higher scores frequently lead to better placement on Amazon and third-party sites. Some critics have called for a boycott of Amazon to protest what they say was bias by the online seller.

Amazon officials blamed the delisting on an error that they said affected more than 57,000 titles that touched on a variety of topics, including Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica.

"This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection," Amazon spokeswoman Patty Smith wrote in an email. "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."

But that didn't stop critics from advancing conspiracy theories that the move was the result of people inside Amazon bending to the will of right-wingers trying to censor books they don't like.

"This doesn't strike me as a glitch," author Kevin Sessums, whose paperback version of Mississippi Sissy was affected by the delisting, told The Wall Street Journal. "Maybe a right-wing troll got into their system, or they have a right wing troll working for them. But the gay blogosphere is afire."

Indeed, it was, with many calling for a boycott on the online seller. They pointed to Amazon's search results for "homosexuality," which prominently offers titles including A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality and You Don't Have to Be Gay: Hope and Freedom for Males Struggling With Homosexuality or for Those Who Know of Someone Who Is. (Interestingly, the same search conducted on Amazon.ca yields vastly different results.)

"By removing gay-related content from its rankings, Amazon has made it so that they do not appear easily in searches and do not appear in book suggestions throughout the site," a blogger for gay rights blog Queerty wrote.

A separate account by a blogger calling himself Weev claimed the delisting was the result of a CSRF, cross-site request forgery, vulnerability on the Amazon website that forced people to unwittingly flag gay- and lesbian-themed books as inappropriate. We seriously doubt this account, however, as there was little to support the hacker's contentions, and we're still trying to locate a feature on the site that allows users to report inappropriate merchandise to administrators. ®

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