The Nameless Horror

Reviewocalypse 2: Amazon is not a censor

So, this has been doing the rounds. An indie author, who also reviews books, has had reviews pulled because Amazon’s automated systems have determined through hidden and arcane means that they know the author in question. The author/reviewer is most unhappy about this.

There are several points worth noting here.

Firstly, Amazon’s TOS always barred reviews from people with personal connections to the product/seller in question. They just let it ride for years. (Paid-for reviews have also always been banned, though again enforcement has been spotty.)

Secondly, they started enforcing it for books, in ham-fisted fashion, after the sock puppet scandal three years ago, when reviews from accounts flagged as belonging to authors were deleted en masse and the TOS was clarified.

Thirdly, while “creepy!” is a common response to the way Amazon’s automated systems identify who knows whom, all this means is that those systems have gotten better since that first flood of removals. Amazon owns Goodreads. They allow you to link your Twitter and Facebook accounts to your Amazon page. Friend links and Twitter follows are publicly accessible. The fact that their systems are therefore able to identify links between people should be no surprise at all. You gave the company access to that data yourself.

Fourthly, their opaqueness as to how the determination was made should be unsurprising. Partly because they have always been annoyingly opaque as a company and asking for clarification from them has always been rather like yelling at a sheer concrete wall, and partly because even if they weren’t, they’re not going to reveal how the system works - even if a CS rep knew - because if they did, people would simply game the system in different ways, which, in theory, Amazon don’t want. They’re already changing review weighting to try to make them more useful and harder to cheat (whether doing so the right way or not).

Fifthly, if you’re now complaining that “we can’t ask our friends for reviews any more!” then good. No matter how honest you ask friends to be, they’re your friends and they’re always going to give you a good review (see answer to Q3) or nothing at all. If you’re part of an indie author review exchange network, doubly so. It’s hard to get early reviews for indie books, and I can entirely sympathize; I have skin in that game. But asking people you actually know to big up your work shouldn’t be the answer.

Sixthly, and most importantly, Amazon is not censoring you.

Really, I can’t stress this enough. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy hyperbole. I use a million tons of hyperbole every day. Particularly when I’m angry.

But Amazon is not censoring you. If reps were coming to your own website, demanding you take down reviews there, that would be different. (Even then, the strict definition of “censorship” involves the government, but I think we could give it a pass for anyone coming onto your property to shut you up.) They’re not. They don’t have to allow reviews at all. Buying something from a site gives you no right at all to say what you thought of it on that site. (Imagine, if you will, the chaos of customer review notebooks hanging beneath every book in a bricks-and-mortar store if that was a requirement.)

Things like this -

The Big Brother mentality Amazon is employing is appalling, and crosses an ethical line of unfathomable proportions.

- and this -

They are not God, and are censoring my passion for the written word.

- and this -

It is censorship at its finest.

- are just ridiculous. Laughably so. They make your argument - and there is an argument there, about the quality of reviews by people with a passion for books as writers as well as readers, the integrity of those writing reviews (and the implied slight in barring them), about whether it’s right to clamp down on reviewers who may follow an author on Twitter when one-star “never arrived so i hate this” shit-ticks are still allowed, etc. - seem ridiculous too.

While things like this -

I am shocked and appalled. At this time, I will discontinue writing peer reviews. I will complete my list of pending reviews, and will cease from posting them on Amazon.

- will, I’m sure, lead to a tiny, tiny violin playing somewhere in Amazon HQ while a single tear rolls down Jeff Bezos’ face.

As I say, there is a legitimate argument there. But moaning about censorship, or a lack of transparency, or about justification isn’t it. And saying you’ll now stop writing the reviews that they won’t let you post anyway and that were possibly always against the TOS they started trying to enforce three years ago isn’t much of a threat, to say the least. If you’re passionate about reading, review elsewhere; they’re not censors and no one will stop you. Link to them on Facebook. Those reviews will still appear on Google. Move on with your lives.