July 22, 2009

Big Bezos is watching you … and a widening crisis?


Fall-out from Amazon‘s removal of two George Orwell books from thousands of Kindles continues to generate discussion — and deepening alarm, it seems.

In a commentary at Slate, Farhad Manjoo says Amazon may have promised to never do it again, but “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 … we are at risk of losing what we take for granted today: full ownership of our book and music and movie collections.”

“This early Kindle book-burning episode also provides a reminder of how closely ebook devices monitor their users’ reading. And that provokes quite a few questions,” says Sam Jordison in a post on The Guardian . “What’s to stop advertisers paying to find out about your preferences, for instance? What’s to stop churches finding out about people reading pro-choice literature in their area? What’s to stop governments finding out about your revolutionary reading preferences?”

“Reaching into people’s electronic bookshelves to take back books is a monstrous violation of reader culture,” writes designer Bruce Nussbaum in a column at Business Week.  “By doing this, Amazon violated the No. 1 principle in design—know your customer culture and respect it. Thousands of readers feel violated by Amazon—and rightly so. There may be lots of legal copyright reasons why Amazon felt it had to remove 1984 … but in silently crawling into people’s Kindles and taking away books belonging to them, the company dealt a terrible self-inflicted blow to its own business model.”

Others are cutting right to the chase: “All this time I’ve been championing the Kindle,” says a post at Geeksugar, which goes on to ask “Did the 1984 Kindle debacle make you reconsider eBooks?” And at Consumerist, they’re offering advice on “How to Load Up Your Kindle With Non-Amazon Ebooks.”

Bur for Amazon, it gets worse: “A law firm known for bringing class-action suits on behalf of consumers against Internet companies says it’s readying a case against Amazon for deleting George Orwell books on users’ Kindles,” says this story from MediaPost.

What’s left? Well, copyright, for one thing: “[W]hat was missed in the coverage was a more important point: that Orwell’s works should be in the public domain in the United States to begin with,” says Duncan Riley in a post on The Inquistr.

But there’s one thing no one seems to be asking about: If Amazon took the books down because they were pirated editions, well, how did they become available through Amazon in the first place?

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives