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Twitter Outcry Claims Anti-Gay Bias at Amazon

Amazon is scrambling to address charges of abuse in how it ranks titles' sales popularity, with outcry over perceived bias spilling across Twitter.

The uproar first surfaced after author Mark Probst posted on his blog over the weekend that gay- and lesbian-themed books were being stripped of their sales rankings on Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN).

The finding -- later confirmed in media reports -- prompted some members of the Twitter community to lash out at the e-commerce giant, claiming a homophobic stance on books with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) topics.

Amazon, meanwhile, is saying that a technical problem is to blame, although it's unclear how successful it's been in fixing the issue.

The outcry stems from Amazon's method of showing how well items are selling in its catalog. The site's sales ranking has become closely watched as not only an indicator of popular items, but also as a way to improve sales.

Amazon calculates items' sales and issues its rankings each hour, giving merchants, manufacturers and marketers an idea of how their wares are faring against competitors'. Perhaps more importantly, conventional wisdom in e-commerce circles has it that Amazon.com users tend to buy items that are already popular -- so higher-ranked items tend to sell at a faster rate, further boosting sales.

That's one reason that changes in Amazon's ranking system caught the industry's interest. Media reports indicated that Amazon appeared to be dropping the rankings for any homosexually oriented titles -- even titles that didn't contain any explicit content. For example, a biography by Ellen DeGeneres was not ranked, while sexually explicit material from porn stars and Playboy continued to be ranked.

Charges of bias

But the situation worsened after Probst reported the omissions to the site. He said he dashed off an e-mail to the online retailer and received the following response from a service rep: "In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude 'adult' material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists."

Not surprisingly, users responded to what appeared to be a wholesale campaign against LGBT topics. On Twitter, they launched a barrage of criticism against Amazon using the "#amazonfail" tag.

Amazon responded Sunday night, however, when spokesperson Patty Smith told the L.A. Times that the changes in sales ranking hadn't been an instance of bias. Instead, she said a glitch had occurred in its sales ranking feature, and was in the process of being fixed.

As of press time, however, the results of any repairs appear to be unclear. The DeGeneres biography still has no sales ranking in its product details, and neither does a non-explicit title by porn star Jenna Jameson.

Meanwhile, The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel, a non-explicit comic strip that chronicles the lives of a tight-knit group of lesbian friends, has received a ranking -- as has porn actor Ron Jeremy's The Hardest (Working) Man in Showbiz, which Amazon labels as an explicit title.

By press time, Amazon had not returned requests for comment on where the company stands on fixing the problem.

For now, it seems Probst is giving Amazon a chance to explain and remedy the situation. In a subsequent blog post, he wrote, "So my guess is, yes Amazon has a policy in place not to display the sales rankings of adult material, but no, they never intended for gay and lesbian material, per se, to be classified as 'adult.' It's a major faux-pas which I'm sure they mean to correct."