July 21, 2009

1984 …or Fahrenheit 451?

Yesterday SLATE published an article by Farhad Manjoo titled Why 2024 Will Be Like Nineteen Eighty-Four. Subtitled: How Amazon's remote deletion of e-books from the Kindle paves the way for book-banning's digital future. The article details how Amazon has reached out and touched some Kindle owners by remotely erasing some book purchases. When I checked this morning I found 267 queries to Amazon relating to the remote erasure of Orwell’s 1984, and Animal Farm, for which Amazon refunded the purchase price.

I could maybe understand Ayn Rand… but Orwell? That’s bizarrely ironic, isn’t it?

But wait a minute… It seems Amazon erased Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead

and Harry Potter too!

For their part, Amazon claims the Kindle versions of all these books were bootlegged, illegal copies uploaded to their system using the Kindle Store's self-publishing system. By zapping ebooks purchased by Kindle users, Amazon was only protecting the publishers' intellectual property. Apparently Kindle users have raised such a stink that Amazon has tucked their tail and promised not to do it any more. We’ll see. As Manjoo states in the SLATE article:

Don't put too much stock in that promise. The worst thing about this story isn't Amazon's conduct; it's the company's technical capabilities. Now we know that Amazon can delete anything it wants from your electronic reader. That's an awesome power, and Amazon's justification in this instance is beside the point. As our media libraries get converted to 1's and 0's, we are at risk of losing what we take for granted today: full ownership of our book and music and movie collections.

Too true, and Manjoo’s raises several interesting points. Such as the fact that the Apple iPhone is tethered in a fashion similar to the Kindle, and that Apple can remotely check the apps you have downloaded, then remove or disable anything objectionable. That means that the $500 you shelled out for that 3g only bought you the use of the device… not control.

Jonathan Zittrain, in his book The Future of the Internet and How To Stop It, discusses the 2001 Playmedia v. AOL and the 2004 TiVo v. Dish Network cases. Zittrain contends that "tethered" devices give the government unprecedented power to reach into our homes and change how our devices function, and indeed, by judicial order, have done just that in these two lawsuits.

Manjoo wraps up his article with an ominous prediction, and a call for some kind of legal protections for owners/users of these tethered devices:

Amazon's promise to do better next time is going to be pretty hard to keep. The company says it won't delete any more books—but it hasn't said what it will do when someone alleges that one of its titles is libelous or violates someone else's copyright. This is bound to happen sooner or later, and the company might find itself deleting books once more. To solve this problem, what we really need are new laws.

Perhaps new laws should not be the only answer considered, but certainly we need to look at existing law in light of emerging technologies. Neither the burning of books, nor big-brotherish electronic zapping of data is anything a free and democratic society should tolerate.


Rogue Medic said...

Amazon.com, now in the memory hole business.