The Sony/BMG rootkit fiasco has advanced to the next stage: Amazon has been flooded with reviews of CDs that contain the rootkit (and possibly some that don’t, but just contain other DRM). These reviews have uniformly been stingingly negative, and award one star (the lowest that Amazon lets you award) out of its one to five star rating system.

The net result has been to radically bring down the average ratings for affected products: the rating for Van Zant’s Brown Sugar (which has been out for a while, and has had plenty of positive feedback until now) is now 3 stars. Newer CDs have been harder hit: the same group’s Get Right with the Man has a 1 star rating.

An example of the feedback left in one of these “1-star bombs” is:

This CD has been recalled because it contains a rootkit, November 16, 2005 … WARNING – DO NOT BUY THIS CD. This CD is infected with DRM, a technology that not only limits what you can do with the music but actually affects the ability of your computer to do other unrelated tasks

Obviously not the sort of thing that Sony/BMG would like (despite the somewhat misleading characterisation of DRM).

Note that the anger against DRM is not just a recent thing. For “Brown Sugar”, there were two late 2004 reviews mentioning the copy protection, one of which awarded 3 stars and one 1 star. There were also complaints as far back as 2002, each mentioning the copy protection. More recently, there was one 5 star rating in late December 2004 commenting on the music only, and a 1 star rating in September 2005 which mentioned the DRM. However, since the discovery and publication of the rootkit in the last few weeks, there have been five reviews, all awarding 1 stars, and all mentioning the rootkit. For “Get Right with the Man”, all seven of its reviews are 1-star bombs about DRM. (nb – I personally can’t comment on the music, as I have never knowingly listened to it).

This should make it pretty clear that consumers hate intrusive DRM. Do it the Apple way, and impose a limit that will only be activated by someone knowing or suspecting they are doing the wrong thing, and almost no-one comments. (Apple prevents you burning any given playlist to disc more than seven (previously 10) times). Do it an intrusive way way, and people will complain frequently and loudly, even if it’s just because they can’t put their songs on their iPods.

But I think this is only the first phase of what looks to be a net-enabled consumer backlash.

Along with the negative reviews have come poisoning of the products with Amazon’s own tag system. Get Right with the Man has already been tagged with 31 “Customer tags”, including: “DRM”, “breaks your computer”, “does not work with an iPod”, “dangerous rootkit malware”, “crippled”, “What was sony thinking”, “evil” and “do not buy”.

This is classic net stuff: one person, acting alone, can spread a message that hundreds or thousands of others can read. This seems to involve more than one person, and may even be concerted. I do think it will have an effect on sales, and I do think it will eventually force concessions on the part of content producers. (Particularly as it is in tandem with any legal fallout, which, if it does not founder on an EULA-related defence, could cost Sony/BMG handsomely. A combined suit for expenses incurred in restoring a system to full usability multiplied even by a hundred claimants would be quite costly.)

And it does seem to be a near-ideological thing: some of the most recent 1 star reviews were posted by users whose only reviews in the last couple of weeks have been caustic, 1-star reviews about CDs containing the rootkit. Some accounts have only just been created, but some have posted previously, a long string of genuine reviews giving way to a recent invective-laden spray at all Sony-BMG CDs.

The interesting thing is what reaction, if any, this might draw from retailers such as Amazon, who are caught between an angry public and a hard place. This kind of campaign must surely cause them to lose sales: not least if a potential customer who would otherwise buy a product is never shown an ad or a suggested link to it by Amazon’s advanced product-suggestion software because of its lowered rating. (Let alone those scared off by negative reviews or tags, at least if they don’t buy another item in its place, and the cost of returned merchandise.)

I wonder whether we will see these sorts of reviews removed or edited (which would set a dangerous precedent), or whether the various algorithms will be tweaked to ignore these 1-star bombs (perhaps they already are?), or whether they will adopt a hands-off policy. I would expect the latter (in the absence of Terms of Use violations). Thinking ahead, if Amazon does do nothing, the result might be to simply favour non-DRM-affected products over DRM-affected ones — and we might have a nice form of Darwinism here.