Hacker Claims Credit For Amazon's Gay-Themed Book 'Glitch'

A hacker now claims he was behind the Amazon.com "glitch" that caused hundreds of gay- and lesbian-themed books to lose their sales ranks over the weekend. The hacker, who identifies himself only as "Weev," posted a confession of sorts within a LiveJournal discussion group Monday morning.

Amazon's 'Adult' Title Issue

The Amazon incident resulted in books ranging from Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain to James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room being labeled as "adult" titles and thereby having their sales ranks removed. Amazon's sales ranks indicate how well a product is selling on the site. A stronger score can lead to better placement within in-site searches and best-seller lists.

The issue was first observed by author Mark R. Probst, who discovered that his own work -- a gay romance novel called The Filly -- was among the items affected. A Twitter campaign soon followed under the heading "#amazonfail," and petitions and even calls for a boycott arrived shortly thereafter.

A Hacker's Story

"Weev" says he was able to spark the sales rank strippings by exploiting an Amazon.com feature for reporting inappropriate content. A small number of reports on any given title would cause it to lose its ranking, he says -- so he created a script to find all gay- and lesbian-themed books, then worked with owners of some (unnamed) popular Web sites to send in scores of complaints.

"They put ... invisible iFrame(s) in their Web sites to refer people to the complaint URLs, which caused huge numbers of visitors to report gay and lesbian items as inappropriate without their knowledge," he writes.

The inappropriate content reporting feature no longer appears to be present on Amazon.com book pages. "Weev" claims the option was removed from the site on Sunday, following his attack.

"Weev," incidentally, was profiled in a 2008 story about online "trolling" in The New York Times . The story discusses his reported connections to various attacks on LiveJournal as well as on cell phones and credit ratings.

Amazon's Stance

Amazon has yet to discuss exactly what led to the gay- and lesbian-themed book sales rank removals. Spokespeople from the company have gone on the record calling the issue a "glitch" and promising it would be repaired. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has also indicated that it "reached out" to Amazon and received the same message.

"They indicate this was an error, so we expect to start seeing evidence of its correction immediately, and any loss of visibility of gay-themed books as a result of this error will be made right," GLAAD president Neil Giuliano told The Wall Street Journal .

An Amazon representative was not immediately available to comment or provide any further detail for this story.

Update: Amazon spokesperson Drew Herdener responded via e-mail shortly after this story's publication. He initially described the issue as "an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error." When asked specifically whether Amazon had any stance on the hacker's claims of involvement, he responded only by stating that it was "an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error by *Amazon*" (his emphasis). Herdener did point out that the effects were not limited to gay- and lesbian-themed titles: Nearly 60,000 products were impacted, he says, including titles within the site's health and mind & body sections. The errors, Herdener indicates, are being corrected as quickly as possible.

Connect with JR Raphael on Twitter (@jr_raphael) or via his Web site, jrstart.com.

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