Thousands of people last week discovered that Amazon had quietly removed electronic copies of George Orwell's 1984 from their Kindle e-book readers. In the process, Amazon revealed how easy censorship will be in the Kindle age.
In this case, the mass e-book removals were motivated by copyright . A company called MobileReference, who did not own the copyrights to the books 1984 and Animal Farm, uploaded both books to the Kindle store and started selling them. When the rights owner heard about this, they contacted Amazon and asked that the e-books be removed. And Amazon decided to erase them not just from the store, but from all the Kindles where they'd been downloaded. Amazon operators used the Kindle wireless network, called WhisperNet, to quietly delete the books from people's devices and refund them the money they'd paid.
An uproar followed, with outraged customers pointing out the irony that Amazon was deleting copies of a novel about a fascist media state that constantly alters history by changing digital records of what has happened. Amazon's action flies in the face of what people expect when they purchase a book. Under the "right of first sale" in the U.S., people can do whatever they like with a book after purchasing it, including giving it to a friend or reselling it. There is no option for a bookseller to take that book back once it's sold.
Apparently, until last week, Amazon claimed it wouldn't take back purchased books either: The New York Times' Brad Stone reports:
Amazon's published terms of service agreement for the Kindle does not appear to give the company the right to delete purchases after they have been made. It says Amazon grants customers the right to keep a "permanent copy of the applicable digital content."
But this isn't the first time there has been a problem with secret deletings. Stone adds:
Amazon appears to have deleted other purchased e-books from Kindles recently. Customers commenting on Web forums reported the disappearance of digital editions of the Harry Potter books and the novels of Ayn Rand over similar issues.
Now that the public is up in arms over the Kindle deletions, Amazon is once again promising good behavior. Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener told reporters:
We are changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers' devices in these circumstances.
That "in these circumstances" bit doesn't inspire a lot of confidence. Sounds like books will be removed again under other (undefined) circumstances.
Regardless of whether you believe Amazon's promise to leave your Kindle alone, the company has tipped its hand and shown us the dark side of a culture where books are only available in electronic form. If the WhisperNet service from Kindle allows the company to delete books silently from your device, what other information might they have access to? Can the company monitor what you're reading and when - and then hand that over to law enforcement? Can it replace a book file with a different file whose content is changed?
Perhaps more than anything else, this mass deletion of 1984 has made it clear that collecting e-books is going to require some technical know-how. No e-book is truly yours unless you can get it off your Kindle and onto your computer - hopefully a computer that isn't connected to the internet.