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Is Amazon using false information to censor book reviews?

Amazon knows your buying habits, but that doesn't mean they know who your friends are, too

Photo © Kaspars Grinvalds - Fotolia
It's an unavoidable fact of modern life that online companies know a lot about your online activity – buy stuff on Amazon, and of course that means Amazon knows what kind of stuff you buy. Post political content on Facebook, and Facebook knows what sort of political content you're wont to post. It's as obvious as pointing out “When you introduce yourself to people, it lets those people know who you are.”

But for all the potentially disturbing privacy implications of companies using such data to draw up accurate and truthful profiles about you, it's arguably a lot worse when companies jump to completely wrong conclusions — and place limits on your behavior as a result.

Yet blogger Imy Santiago says that's exactly what Amazon is doing. Specifically, she says Amazon is refusing to post a review she'd written about an e-book, out of the false belief that Santiago is friends with the author (and thus, the review presumably is not an honest one).

Refusal to post review

When Santiago first tried posting her review (she won't identify the book's name or author, saying only that it's “the third installment of a series I really loved”), Amazon sent her an email saying it wouldn't post her review because it didn't adhere to Amazon's review guidelines. The email included a link to the guidelines, but no mention of exactly how Santiago violated them.

Santiago carefully compared her review to the stated guidelines and saw no violations, so she tried posting again. This time, she says, Amazon immediately sent a message saying “Sorry. You’re not eligible to review this product. For more information, read the Customer Review Guidelines.”

So Santiago wrote Amazon to ask what, exactly, she'd done wrong, and the next day Amazon told her:

We cannot post your Customer Review for (book title deleted) by (author name deleted) to the Amazon website because your account activity indicates that you know the author.

Customer Reviews are meant to give customers unbiased product feedback from fellow shoppers.

Because our goal is to provide Customer Reviews that help customers make informed purchase decisions, any reviews that could be viewed as advertising, promotional, or misleading will not be posted.... If you believe you’re eligible to write a Customer Review for this book, send additional details to review-appeals@amazon.com.

As Santiago says, the suggestion that she knows the author is “quite an erroneous and quite presumptuous assessment, so I went through the painstaking process of escalating the issue to their Review Appeals Department.”

Her message to Amazon said, in part, that “I am a writer and published author. I understand the Indie Community is a small one, and among our circles, rubbing elbows with peers is not an uncommon occurrence. I am also a blogger and reviewer who also buys books. When I’m not writing, I am reading and reviewing. My reviews are one hundred percent unbiased, regardless if I have rubbed elbows with peers online. I would like to know who is providing you the information that suggests I may know the author.”

Lack of transparency

As Santiago (or anyone familiar with social media) can tell you, “knowing of an author online, and personally knowing an author in real life are two different things. … I am left speechless as I don’t know any authors on a level you are suggesting. I merely follow authors on Social Media: Twitter, Facebook, Google+, tsu, and on your partner site Goodreads.”

Amazon responded a week later with no useful information at all, merely re-stating their previous accusations and re-offering the previous link to review guidelines while refusing to explain why they believe Santiago is friends with the author because that information is “proprietary”:


We removed your Customer Reviews because you know the author personally.

Due to the proprietary nature of our business, we do not provide detailed information on how we determine that accounts are related.

To learn more about this policy, please see our Customer Review Creation Guidelines (http://www.amazon.com/review-guidelines).

We cannot share any further information about our decision and we may not reply to further emails about this issue.

Amazon's policy is obviously intended to crack down on bogus reviews, but given their complete lack of transparency, it's impossible to determine where the policy went wrong. However, as Santiago notes, “This is what happens when you are a published writer, and write reviews for the books you paid for. … I have interacted with a couple hundred authors over the past year; from events to signings, authors and writers rub elbows during networking sessions. This does NOT mean I know you personally.”

Although Amazon's proprietary friendship-figuring algorithms apparently think otherwise.

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