SHIFT: Is Big Brother living in your Kindle?

Talk about irony. In an Orwellian moment, owners of Amazon's Kindle discovered that their recently purchased copies of George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm had been deleted by Amazon. Apparently, a third-party retailer who specializes in selling public-domain books used Amazon's self-service platform to sell copies of two Orwell titles. Unfortunately, those books aren't public domain in the U.S.A. Oops.

Granted, the copies were unauthorized copies, but they were already sold. Yet Amazon seemed to be completely comfortable with reaching out and remotely deleting the copies on all those Kindles (the company later apologized for the deletions). It's kind of like they sneaked into your home and snatched it off your bookshelf. And it's not the only device out there vulnerable to this sort of "invasion." While everyone was busy celebrating the amazing cavalcade of gadgets that have emerged in the last few years, we failed to notice that the technology is firmly in place to enable third parties to come in and take away media that you own. Keep reading for the whole story.


Terms of Service

Amazon's own Terms of Service state that once an e-book is yours, it's yours:

Upon your payment of the applicable fees set by Amazon, Amazon grants you the non-exclusive right to keep a permanent copy of the applicable Digital Content and to view, use, and display such Digital Content an unlimited number of times, solely on the Device or as authorized by Amazon as part of the Service and solely for your personal, non-commercial use.

Despite that, customers discovered their copies of those books were gone. One poor kid even lost all the work he had done on a book report that he had started, using the Kindle to take notes.

However, even Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos thought the deletion was wrong. Very wrong. "This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle. Our 'solution' to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we've received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission."


What Shouldn't Happen

While even Bezos admits it was a stupid move, it does make you wonder what else Amazon (and others) does that is straight out of 1984. Isn't it creepy when Amazon posts their "Customers who looked at this also bought that" links? Do you really want it to remind you "You bought this, now you might want to buy that?" Who's had a birthday surprise, or a secret purchase revealed because of Amazon's meddling ways? (Come on, you know there was a purchase you were keeping from your girlfriend, right?) And when it's suggesting Tummy Tuck jeans to me, are they trying to tell me something? Information is gathered by many websites. Google ads are just one, but the banner ads on most website are targeted to directly to you. Maybe Amazon deleted 1984 because it already was hitting just a little too close to home.


Big Bro'

Besides the Big Brother moves, this mass deletion brings up a more disturbing question. With more and more of our life in a digital cloud, what do you really own when you buy software? Many people use cloud computing to store documents, files, and even purchased music, movies, and well, books. When you buy something with Digital Rights Management (DRM), what rights do you have to that property? What rights are you really conceding when you "purchase" something with DRM, and whose rights are being protected?

Certainly not the consumer's. Imagine this: you buy a love song that written for a singer's current flame. When that flame flickers out, the artist is so heartbroken, he wants to delete that song from everyone's library. It sounds far-fetched, but the technology exists. Even if you reformat the song to something DRM-free, software like Shazam has other ways of identifying music. TiVo used to let consumers record a pay-per-view movie from DirecTV and keep it for however long they want. Now, after paying the same amount, most DirecTV movies get automatically erased after 24 hours, whether or not you've actually viewed them.

In addition to that public apology by Bezos, Amazon has said that in the future, it will not automatically remove copies of a book from Kindle if a similar situation comes up in the future. But the remote delete key is still somewhere in a locked room in Amazon's basement. Will it really never be pushed again, under any circumstances? What would George say?