Sunday, July 26, 2009

Kindle's Big Brother

For some reason, I didn't see this week-old news until today.

I have been debating the purchase of a Kindle from Amazon. Talk about convenience when one travels! And, if--as I do, one buys a lot of books, it could eventually save you quite a bit of money.

But . . . But . . . What about writing notes in the margins? And highlighting text? And that tremendous mnemonic aid that physical, printed books and magazines provide: physical-spatial location of memories [we tend to remember passages not only by their words and concepts, but by actual location on a page; electronic text commonly eliminates this kind of spatial memory]?

Well, now there is an even more significant reason why I would be super-cautious about buying a Kindle: It turns out you do not own final control over the content on the device.

Oh. I'm not merely referring to the possibility (shall we say: probability) of memory loss. I'm talking about Amazon actually deleting content for which you've paid . . . or possibly altering it, after you've received it.

Turns out last Friday, July 17th, Amazon deleted at least two books off of customers' Kindles. Ironically, they were both by George Orwell, and one of them was 1984--the book that taught us about Big Brother and introduced the concept of the Memory Hole--the hole into which the police state ensure any documentary evidence for inconvenient facts of history would be dumped . . . so they could be incinerated and forgotten.

Well: Now Amazon has proven itself to be Big Brother over the Kindle. It has--and will use--that Memory Hole power over any content you may purchase that it finds inconvenient. According to the New York Times,
An Amazon spokesman, Drew Herdener, said in an e-mail message that the [Orwell] books were added to the Kindle store by a company that did not have rights to them, using a self-service function. “When we were notified of this by the rights holder, we removed the illegal copies from our systems and from customers’ devices, and refunded customers,” he said. . . .

Retailers of physical goods cannot, of course, force their way into a customer’s home to take back a purchase, no matter how bootlegged it turns out to be. Yet Amazon appears to maintain a unique tether to the digital content it sells for the Kindle.

“It illustrates how few rights you have when you buy an e-book from Amazon,” said Bruce Schneier, chief security technology officer for British Telecom and an expert on computer security and commerce. “As a Kindle owner, I’m frustrated. I can’t lend people books and I can’t sell books that I’ve already read, and now it turns out that I can’t even count on still having my books tomorrow.”

Turns out, however, that last Friday's experience was not an isolated occurrence. Amazon has also sold pirated copies of Ayn Rand works and Harry Potter books . . . and removed them from readers' Kindles as well.

And while it seems reasonable that, when they discovered their definite error in marketing illegal goods, and at least potential) error in publishing such goods (is Amazon a publisher when it causes an electronic-only version of a book to be copied/distributed?), Amazon attempted to "make things right" by pulling the pirated content and refunding customers' money, the story isn't so simple.

As "wodin" explained on the MobileRead forum,
Amazon should be held liable for any damages done to the publishers and heirs of the works in dispute. That does not give them the right to log onto their customers private property and delete any files.

Just because I bought a computer (which I have) from Amazon, does that give them license to remote into it and delete any files they want? I think not!

The analogy would be if Amazon photocopied a protected book, and sold copies of it. Could they then come to my house without my permission and retrieve the book so that they would not have to pay damages to the original publisher? Just because they notified me that they were going to do it, they still can’t break into my house or my computer or my Kindle or anything else of mine.
And, as someone else noted, when they deleted these pirated books, not all customers lost "only" the books.

From the New York Times article:
Justin Gawronski, a 17-year-old from the Detroit area, was reading “1984” on his Kindle for a summer assignment and lost all his notes and annotations when the file vanished. “They didn’t just take a book back, they stole my work,” he said.
But beyond whatever personal injuries these events bring to our attention, I am struck by the societal implications that Mike Adams of Natural News, the guy who brought this story to my attention, noted:
What happens when the U.S. government begins banning books (you know, books about freedom, or the U.S. Constitution, or how to make a backyard mortar out of PVC)? Will initiate a global delete process to remove any "illegal" books from your Kindle? . . .

History is full of Police State governments that banned books and burned books in an attempt to limit the People's access to knowledge. Is now engaged in digital book burning?

. . . [And d]on't forget that Google, Yahoo and other technology companies have openly cooperated with China's censorship schemes that have continued an inhumane state of political oppression in that country.

The advantage of owning a real book (printed on trees) is that no one can take it from you without getting past your front door and your German Shepherd. Plus, the screens don't crack and the batteries don't run out. You can set a book down when you need a pause, and when you pick it up you'll find the page right where you left it.
Nice to know about and to be able to think of these things before buying a Kindle rather than after!

One last note: Jeff Bezos has apologized for Amazon's behavior:
This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle. Our "solution" to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we've received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission.
So how will the company behave in the future?

I guess that's still an open question, isn't it? He has stated no principles. Indeed, he says their behavior was "out of line with [their] principles," he says nothing about with what specific principles he believes their behavior was out of line.

Hmmmmm. . . .
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