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Recalling Big Brother

A man sits down to read a politically provocative novel on his electronic reader only to find that the book has vanished. Without warning, his purchase price has been refunded and the book he’d hoped to peruse has been deleted.

You might think this is from George Orwell’s famous anti-utopian adventure 1984, but it is in fact a scene that played out earlier this month in real living rooms and commuter trains across the country. Ironically, the disappearing book was 1984.

The deletion occurred after Amazon discovered that it was distributing 1984 and other books, including Animal Farm, without the proper permissions. Amazon’s Kindle devices come equipped with digital rights management software that enables the company to do something with ebooks that it cannot do with traditional print copies, which is to step into the customer’s home and take back what has been sold.

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, apologized for the incident, saying Amazon’s “‘solution’ to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles.”

In spite of Bezos’s promise to “make better decisions going forward,” the incident provides plenty of reasons to be uneasy about technology that could potentially be used to monitor and to censor what we read. In this case, Amazon’s electronic recall had nothing to do with the content of the erased books, but, in the future, governments or other powerful entities could conceivably ask (or force) Amazon to use its powers for less benign purposes.

Jonathan Zittrain, a professor at Harvard Law School and author of the book, The Future of the Internet — and How to Stop It commented to The New York Times that, eventually, digital rights management software might be used “like a line item veto for content.” He went on to suggest that “It could happen first in jurisdictions like the United Kingdom, where there isn’t as rich a First Amendment tradition and where libel suits happen much more frequently.”

In spite of Amazon’s efforts to make reading a book on the Kindle as much like reading a paper and ink book as possible, events like this remind us that electronic content distribution keeps us discreetly tethered to our suppliers. This is true not only of Amazon, but also of Apple’s iTunes store and cable companies that supply us with set-top boxes. What if the National Football League’s license agreement allowed it to demand that blown calls, wardrobe malfunctions and other embarrassments be electronically deleted from our DVRs?

The First Amendment gives Americans some of the strongest protections for free expression the world has ever seen. Freedom of speech and freedom of thought are not universally respected or even admired. Amazon goofed when it deleted the electronic books it had sold, but it also did us a favor by reminding us that today’s powerful information technologies work in both directions.

Come to think of it, this blog is available to Kindle users for the modest fee of $1.99 a month. If you downloaded this post on your Kindle, I hope you get the chance to read it.

We can bring the bookseller into our homes. The question now is: Can we also keep it out?

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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One Response to "Recalling Big Brother"

  • Jon
    August 1, 2009 - 11:11 am

    A high school student in Michigan is trying to initiate a class-action lawsuit against Amazon for this deletion. Apparently he was doing his summer reading assignments on his Kindle, but when Amazon deleted 1984, all of the notes he’d made became useless:

    http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2009/07/30/lawsuit-amazon-ate-my-homework/