Amazon’s "Personal Connection" Review Policies Are Nothing New

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

One of today's most popular pastimes, in the writing world at least, is demonizing Amazon (or sanctifying it, but that's not the subject of this post). Latest flashpoint: Amazon's review policies.

The flap seems to have begun with blogger Imy Santiago, who wrote about her attempt to post a review of a self-published book she'd just read. She received an automated response from Amazon indicating that she was "not eligible to review this product," and when she contacted Amazon to ask why, she was told:
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.
According to Santiago, she does not know the author; she's simply a reader and a fan. She contacted Amazon again, and was refused again; Amazon also refused to disclose "how we determine that accounts are related" because that information is "proprietary". Santiago was outraged.
I pay for my eBooks. I take the time to read and review books I love. The Big Brother mentality Amazon is employing is appalling, and crosses an ethical line of unfathomable proportions. They are not God, and are censoring my passion for the written word....This is wrong, and it has to stop. It is censorship at its finest.
Santiago's post was quickly picked up by other bloggers and news outlets, which echoed the Big Brother theme with ominous titles like Is Amazon Using False Information to Censor Book Reviews? and Amazon's Review Policy is Creepy and Bad for Authors and Amazon is Data Mining Reviewers' Personal Relationships.

Well, yeah. Amazon is data mining everything (including your reading activity, if you use a Kindle). This is not news. Nor is the fact that Amazon has long engaged in a policy of deleting or refusing reviews where it deems that the reviewer and the author are related in some way. A similar flap erupted in 2012, when Amazon began denying or getting rid of reviews "on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product." For Amazon, this included not just friends and fans and third-party merchants, but authors, who suddenly found themselves barred from posting reviews of fellow authors' books.

It's not as if there are legions of Amazon minions in cubicles poring over every customer review. Amazon uses automated systems--and while its secrecy about exactly how it makes determinations is frustrating, it's not surprising that it considers that information proprietary (plus, as TeleRead's Chris Meadows points out, providing individual explanations in response to every question would involve massive amounts of paperwork). Also, automated systems often get it wrong--as in the Great Erotica Panic of 2013, where books that did not violate Amazon's anti-smut guidelines were removed along with books that did. This is a problem of Amazon's enormous scale. But the ongoing culling of reviews exists in the larger context of Amazon's battle to quell rampant review sockpuppetry (against which it recently took action outside its own ecosystem, launching a lawsuit against three alleged fake review websites). It's hardly censorship, as in a practice of systematic, deliberate suppression.

Chris Meadows also wonders what Imy Santiago isn't revealing
I just want to re-emphasize we have no way of knowing how close Santiago and this other person she tried to review are. They could be almost complete strangers, or they could be on each others’ Christmas card lists. Santiago isn’t saying. She’s just objecting to the whole premise on principle. This seems a little suspicious to me, because as far as I’m concerned, the premise does make sense. If Amazon determines that you and the author of the book you’re reviewing do know each other, honestly, it should be keeping you from reviewing their book.
I tend to agree. Yet it's also true that Amazon's focus on review abuse is one-sided: while it makes active war on false positives, it largely ignores the problem of false negatives (for instance, one-star review campaigns). And its policies may sometimes hit some groups harder than others. In a long blog post, author Lori Otto makes a case for why, in a networked world where authors and readers are more connected than they've ever been, self-published authors are disproportionately affected by a ban on reviews from personal contacts:
As an Indie author, I can’t NOT become friends with many of these readers. Through these friendships, I reach more people… not because I ask them to share my books, but because they genuinely want to share them! It’s an organic process that isn’t motivated by greed or by threats or by anything negative.
A petition to "Change the 'You Know This Author' Policy" makes similar points. As of this writing, it has gathered over 9,000 supporters; I don't think any of them should be holding their breath, though.

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