Let’s give Amazon the benefit of the doubt—its explanation for why it deleted some books from customers’ Kindles actually sounds halfway defensible. Last week a few Kindle owners awoke to discover that the company had reached into their devices and remotely removed copies of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. Amazon explained that the books had been mistakenly published, and it gave customers a full refund. It turns out that Orwell wasn’t the first author to get flushed down the Kindle’s memory hole. In June, fans of Ayn Rand suffered the same fate—Amazon removed Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, and The Virtue of Selfishness, with an explanation that it had “recently discovered a problem” with the titles. And some customers have complained of the same experience with Harry Potter books. Amazon says the Kindle versions of all these books were illegal. Someone uploaded bootlegged copies using the Kindle Store’s self-publishing system, and Amazon was only trying to look after publishers’ intellectual property. The Orwell incident was too rich with irony to escape criticism, however. Amazon was forced to promise that it will no longer delete its customers’ books.
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.
Most of the e-books, videos, video games, and mobile apps that we buy these days day aren’t really ours. They come to us with digital strings that stretch back to a single decider—Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, or whomever else. Steve Jobs has confirmed that every iPhone routinely checks back with Apple to make sure the apps you’ve purchased are still kosher; Apple reserves the right to kill any app at any time for any reason. But why stop there? If Apple or Amazon can decide to delete stuff you’ve bought, then surely a court—or, to channel Orwell, perhaps even a totalitarian regime—could force them to do the same. Like a lot of others, I’ve predicted the Kindle is the future of publishing. Now we know what the future of book banning looks like, too.
Consider the legal difference between purchasing a physical book and buying one for your Kindle. When you walk into your local Barnes & Noble to pick up a paperback of Animal Farm, the store doesn’t force you to sign a contract limiting your rights. If the Barnes & Noble later realizes that it accidentally sold you a bootlegged copy, it can’t compel you to give up the book—after all, it’s your property. The rules are completely different online. When you buy a Kindle a book, you’re implicitly agreeing to Amazon’s Kindle terms of service. The contract gives the company “the right to modify, suspend, or discontinue the Service at any time, and Amazon will not be liable to you should it exercise such right.” In Amazon’s view, the books you buy aren’t your property—they’re part of a “service,” and Amazon maintains complete control of that service at all times. Amazon has similar terms covering downloadable movies and TV shows, as does Apple for stuff you buy from iTunes.
In The Future of the Internet and How To Stop It, Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain argues that such “tethered” appliances give the government unprecedented power to reach into our homes and change how our devices function. In 2004, TiVo sued Echostar (which runs Dish Network) for giving its customers DVR set-top boxes that TiVo alleged infringed on its software patents. A federal district judge agreed. As a remedy, the judge didn’t simply force Dish to stop selling new devices containing the infringing software—the judge also ordered Dish to electronically disable the 192,000 devices that it had already installed in people’s homes. (An appeals court later stayed the order; the legal battle is ongoing.) In 2001, a company called Playmedia sued AOL for including a version of the company’s MP3 player in its software. A federal court agreed and ordered AOL to remove Playmedia’s software from its customers’ computers through a “live update.”
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