Amazon Burns Orwell's E-Books

Everyone knows Ray Bradbury’s book Fahrenheit 451. First published in 1953, Bradbury imagined a world in which government “firemen” could enter your home at any time and burn your books “for the good of humanity.” This deeply dystopic vision has, thankfully, not come to pass. Nor could it. In the U.S., the First and Fourth Amendments project against unreasonable government intrusion, especially where it implicates ideas. The state will never be able to enter your house and burn your books, even in an age of terrorism. I really believe that.

That’s why I was so disturbed to learn that Amazon has managed to “burn” two other famous dystopias, these ones by George Orwell, without implicating the Constitution. According to reports, people who had purchased Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm for Kindle woke up to find that Amazon had erased the e-books remotely.

Jonathan Zittrain has warned about this phenomenon—which he calls “software as service”—wherein people no longer own what they buy. Digital products become evolving and hence unstable services that a company may alter or even destroy at whim. Like many things that happen first on the Internet, the death of ownership is also happening offline, as when car dealers leave GPS devices on vehicles so as to make it easier to repossess them.

E-books evoke dystopian novels in a second way. It is rapidly becoming impossible to peruse or buy a book without leaving a digital trail. Law enforcement has already reportedly asked Amazon to hand over customer purchase history; it is a matter of time before the government approaches Google Book Search. It is no accident that common to practically every dystopian novel is the abrogation of privacy. This is clearly true of Bradbury and Orwell. In Zamyatan’s We, the buildings are all made of transparent glass. In Huxley’s Brave New World, the biggest taboo is solitude. Bernard Marx tells us that an aversion to being alone is, of all state messages, repeated the most times during sleep conditioning.

I don’t mean to overstate. In many ways we live in a historic zenith of freedom. And Amazon zapping books for business reasons is a far cry from state sanctioned book burning. But we nevertheless must get a handle on the issues of ownership and privacy that e-books raise, lest we wake up one day to find they have disappeared.

Comments

I think start to understand what ebooks can be :
They are like borrowing but with the price of a purchase. They are not a purchase, as neither can't they be resold nor given away, but they can easily be retracted by Amazon. With the advantage of 'traceability' as purchases via Amazon can be tracked down.

Now with regard to these two titles sudden 'overnight' evaporation :
1- I'm wondering how many people are possessing a kindle;
2- How many of these people have actually purchased the '1984' book of George Orwell. I have actually recently read that very few people had read this book!
3 - Knowing the high professionalism of the work of Amazone's lawyers, I'm very surprised that the contract binding publishers to Amazon would have allow them to retroactively 'decide to pull their content from the Kindle store'

Finally, I can only honor the way consumers and the press have reacted to make their voice heard and contest against an abusive decision.
One more positive of internet voice!!

Clarinette02 - you seem to suggest that only a few people must have lost 1984 thus it is not a big deal. Does how many people were affected really make a difference to the significance of the act?

I think you miss the point Mr. Calo is making. People used to buy physical books and be able to keep them against intrusion by the government or anyone else (including the publisher). As we become more digital, however, we lose the control we had over physical things. What if we reach the point where nothing is ever "owned" - it is just "rented" to be revoked at the producer's whim. The whole point is that in 1984 "books" and "ideas" are synonymous. If digital distribution becomes the norm for books and it works like the Kindle, do we lose the protections that have traditionally safeguarded ideas?

As to your point #3, publishers pretty much have absolute control over how many downloads, text-to-speech, and even ownership that can be changed at any time. See Exhibit A: http://boingboing.net/2009/06/22/some-kindle-books-ha.html
Exhibit B: http://www.readingrights.org/445

BigBrother, You are absolutely right that whatever how many people purchased the ebooks, Amazon's decision to access users Accounts/kindle to pull out is highly disturbing.
I might not have been clear enough. Let me explain my point. My remark was more trying to understand how the story builds up at first. Reacting shortly after that happened, I was wondering how many people had been affected and how the information could have been circulated. I am amazed how quick the reaction started and the internet community could express its opposition,

I am quite surprised and disappointed that Amazon is deleting books from their data base of books for Kindle. Could this be correct? I think I have heard Jeff Bezo on the Charlie Rose Show say Amazon was trying to get every book on earth into Amazon and available on Kindle. I guess this is another downside of buying a Kindle.

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