October 23, 2012

Amazon would like to apologize for stealing your books


We have our differences with Amazon over here, but if there’s one thing I respect about them it’s that they’re true to form. In a company of that size you’d think that somewhere there’d be room for a dissenting voice of compassion. Nope. Amazon, in all aspects of their business, present a uniform front of dogged shitheaddery the likes of which is rarely seen.

This Monday word reached us through twitter of a recent case in Norway in which one customer, the semi-anonymous Linn, has been added to the Amazon equivalent of a no-fly zone. Her account has been cancelled and her personal data flagged so that all further accounts she tries to open will be blocked in turn. Fine, right? Let her shop at the site of a local Norwegian indie (perhaps this one)! The real issue, however, is that Linn has lost access to her Kindle ebooks, books which she most likely paid for.

When she emailed Amazon to ask for an explanation, she was told:

We have found your account is directly related to another which has been previously closed for abuse of our policies. As such, your Amazon.co.uk account has been closed and any open orders have been cancelled.

Per our Conditions of Use which state in part: Amazon.co.uk and its affiliates reserve the right to refuse service, terminate accounts, remove or edit content, or cancel orders at their sole discretion.

Please know that any attempt to open a new account will meet with the same action.

After asking for clarification, she received another email saying, in part:

As previously advised, your Amazon.co.uk account has been closed, as it has come to our attention that this account is related to a previously blocked account. While we are unable to provide detailed information on how we link related accounts, please know that we have reviewed your account on the basis of the information provided and regret to inform you that it will not be reopened.

Please understand that the closure of an account is a permanent action. Any subsequent accounts that are opened will be closed as well. Thank you for your understanding with our decision.

I appreciate this is not the outcome you hoped for and apologise for any disappointment this may cause.

In summation: no, you cannot have your e-books back. Sorry. Or, sorry-ish.

It was initially reported that Amazon had wiped Linn’s Kindle as a result of the mysterious infraction. After being reached for comment by Simon Phipps, she clarified that her device had been broken, that the recent development arose as she sought to have it replaced (a second time).

Broken down into pieces, all of this is understandable. There are two failures here. The individual emailing with Linn, one Michael Murphy, is convinced that she is somehow involved with something nefarious, like, say, reading ebooks in Norway. He is dismissive because of it. It is also likely the case that he spends much of his time dealing with situations in which Amazon is working to deny somebody something, and it is easier for him, and more productive, if he doesn’t engage but just triggers the right response macros and has done with it. This is an instance of terrible customer service, but it’s easy to see how a system enabling as much might have been put into place.

The second problem is the larger one. I can imagine few more nightmarish scenarios than to be denied access to a portion of my library by some faceless corporate voice. (Not so with WORSE scenarios, mind you. I can imagine much worse, but this situation strikes me as exactly the sort of Canetti-esque nightmare I would have.)

That any of us are in a position with our technology where that becomes possible is a problem, no matter how often it happens or the tone of the corporate non-apology when it does. Whether or not Amazon could reach into Linn’s kindle and delete her ebooks (which they did do to others in 2009, remember) or whether they merely refused to grant her access to those books she’d already bought, that is a breach of the vendor-customer relationship as we have come to know it. Cory Doctorow makes an excellent point to this end, writing

[The] fine print will always have a clause that says you are a mere tenant farmer of your books, and not their owner, and your right to carry around your “purchases” (which are really conditional licenses, despite misleading buttons labelled with words like “Buy this with one click” — I suppose “Conditionally license this with one click” is deemed too cumbersome for a button) can be revoked without notice or explanation (or, notably, refund) at any time.

Amazon’s corporate culture is to blame for the smaller problem, the poor customer service. I’m not saying Linn would have gotten a better response from other huge e-taillers. She might have had luck with a smaller vendor, one willing to work with her as an individual. The again, she might not. Small retailers can be surly and mistaken, too. What she wouldn’t have gotten is this particularly offensive blend of bland corporate non-apology, with earthy undertones of “fuck off.”

And Amazon’s corporate culture is to blame for the second, the major problem. Only a company that has willfully and permanently distanced themselves from the nuances of what we, readers, mean when we gently mouth words like “library” could ever be responsible for a system that treats the erasure or revocation of such as a negligible act. The greatest and least of Amazon’s crimes against literacy is precisely this: the denial of what a book is. Books, libraries, even notional e-libraries, are an exception in our lives, a small bit of nuance in a world geared to avoid as much. They are not to be erased.


Phipps has posted the following to his own piece on this kerfuffle:

Update @ 23:55 – Linn just contacted me to say her account has been mysteriously re-activated and she’s busily downloading her books. Hopefully Amazon will have more news for us all soon. Even positive arbitrary actions disclose how much Kindle customers read only with the grace of Amazon, of course…

Update @ 00:30 – Amazon PR just wrote to say: “We would like to clarify our policy on this topic. Account status should not affect any customer’s ability to access their library. If any customer has trouble accessing their content, he or she should contact customer service for help. Thank you for your interest in Kindle.”



Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.