Jul 192009
 July 19, 2009  Posted by  Business

On Friday, The New York Times reported that Amazon had remotely deleted some digital editions of  books from the Kindle devices of readers who had bought them. Ironically, the books were George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm.

Amazon’s explanation was that the company that had provided the books didn’t have the rights to the books:

An Amazon spokesman, Drew Herdener, said in an e-mail message that the 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.

But was this just a digital rights management (DRM) issue, or is there also a privacy issue in there when a company snatches back something from your own device?

Over on Emergent Chaos, Mordaxus writes:

The issue is caused not by DRM, but by cloud computing. The problem is that Amazon has a cloud service in which Kindle customers can keep their e-books on Amazon’s shelf, and shuffle them around to any Kindle-enable device they have (like a Kindle proper, or an iPhone running the Kindle app). Customers can even delete a book from their Kindle and get it back from the cloud at a later date.

The event is that Amazon removed the book from the cloud, not that it had DRM in it. If you are concerned by this, you should be concerned by the cloud service. The cloud service enabled Amazon to respond to a legal challenge by removing customers’ data from the cloud. They didn’t need DRM to do it. In contrast, if iTunes store or the Sony e-book store had improperly sold a book, they wouldn’t be able to revoke it because they don’t have a cloud service as part of the store. (eMusic, incidentally, regularly adds and removes music from their store with the waxing and waning of desire to sell it.)

Michael Zimmer addresses the feeling of invasion of privacy on MichaelZimmer.org:

So, yes, while it feels as if Barnes & Noble broke into your house to take back the book you purchased last week, the reality of licensing digital content is different than with brick and mortar. Clearly, we all need to do a better job educating consumers about content licenses, DRMs, and the nature of our digital tools.

But there is a much larger issue here that is being overlooked by many commentators: how simple it is for Amazon to simply take back what they sold you.


This “snoop-friendly” nature of the Kindle is what made it effortless for Amazon to be able to reach in and take back Orwell’s words. The fact that Kindles users went to bed reading Orwell, and woke up the next morning with it suddenly stripped from their Kindles’ memory should be reminder to us all of the power Amazon maintains over readers. The ability to read freely and anonymously continues to be eroded before our (digital) eyes.

Personally, I don’t use Kindle. I’m old-fashioned when it comes to books. I love the feeling of holding a book in my hands and reading it. But now the next time my husband complains about all of the books taking over the house or mutters about having to put up yet more shelves, I can remind him that at least no one can come snatch a book back from me when I’m in the middle of reading it.

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