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Amazon Fail 2.0: Orwell Removed from Kindles

We welcome back University of Illinois linguist Dennis Baron, who reflects on some disturbing news that emerged recently about Amazon.com's e-book reader, the Kindle.

In a move worthy of George Orwell's Big Brother, Amazon.com sent its thought police into Kindles everywhere to erase copies of 1984 and Animal Farm.

A few months ago, Amazon got into trouble with its customers for silently placing books about homosexuality in the "adult materials" category and removing their sales rankings. After a Twitter campaign under the rubric #amazonfail generated massive amounts of negative publicity, the bookseller reversed course, claiming that the problem resulted from a cataloging error, not a change in policy towards gays and lesbians.

Now, in a move that would seem to constitute not digital discrimination but electronic breaking and entering, they've done it again. After erasing the Orwells from Amazon's popular and pricey Kindle e-book reader, the nation's largest bookseller informed customers in a brief email that it was refunding their purchase price ($0.99 for each book) because the publisher had recalled the e-books. It later announced that the texts were actually pirated versions of the novels and had been made available by Amazon in error. (Legal versions of the e-books, copyrighted by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, are still available from Amazon.)

Amazingly enough, some Kindle users felt that Amazon's actions were justified — after all, they confessed, they had received stolen property, and once Amazon had refunded their money, the company was surely within its rights to take back its property.

But others were outraged by Amazon's arrogant big-brotherism. (Apparently the company has silently deleted bootleg Harry Potters and Ayn Rand novels from Kindles as well.) One Kindler unhappy over Amazon's invasion of privacy posed this hypothetical: What if Barnes & Noble sold you a book, but later, discovering that they sold it without the copyright owner's permission, they broke into your house and took it back, leaving a refund on your kitchen table? Maybe not a plot worthy of Law and Order, but in most states, B&E's still a felony.

Web 2.0 is a wonderful thing, permitting 2-way interaction between surfers and the websites they visit. Since it replaced the earlier, one-way internet, we've been living our online lives by downloading material from websites and uploading our own content in turn. The newest two-way superhighway is why Facebook, YouTube, and Wikipedia are so popular, and why a Minnesota woman was recently fined $1.92 million for illegal file sharing.

In the file sharing case, the RIAA took action against a woman that it considered a "copyright scofflaw" by hauling her into court, where she was defended by lawyers who are now appealing her fine. Amazon chose a more direct, less legalistic, route. Taking advantage of Web 2.0's interactivity, it silently grabbed content from customers' e-readers, despite the fact that they had purchased the texts in good faith and that the Kindle's terms-of-service agreement "grants customers the right to keep a 'permanent copy of the applicable digital content.'"

The Kindle story just broke, and with details still a little vague, we'll have to wait for further developments to clarify the seriousness and legality of Amazon's actions. But its significance is already clear. Between Amazon and the Google book project, two privately-owned, for-profit digital giants are poised to promote our literacy — to make books available to everyone, everywhere. But they're also poised to control that literacy, limiting through their monopolistic influences exactly which books we can and cannot see. Amazon's even gone so far as to pick our pockets to remove texts that they've decided we have no right to possess.

Yes, there are massive and indisputable benefits to the Web's interactivity, but they come at a price, a reconfiguration of public and private space that is so dramatic as to be hard to miss, and yet sometimes so subtle that it's easy for us to forget about. The internet allows us to go out into the world from the privacy of our desktops, to surf sites and to create them, to upload and to access information, in ways and at speeds never before possible. But our surfing also opens those private desktops to public view, by letting us publish our private thoughts, but also by creating a visible record of our keystrokes and our searches open not just to hackers and spies but also to retailers and advertisers who visit our hard drives, and sometimes, as Amazon has done, alter or remove their contents.

When the government reads our emails or tracks our web searches in the interests of national security, we cry big-brotherism and worry about the erosion of civil liberties. When corporations like Amazon and Google track us, ostensibly to better anticipate what we might want to buy, we tend to praise their ingenuity as hi-tech capitalism at its best. Amazon's latest fail should remind us that Big Brother is watching not from the CIA's bricks-and-mortar headquarters in Reston, but from corporate headquarters somewhere, everywhere, in cyberspace, and that we must defend our civil liberties from corporate as well as government abuse.

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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday July 21st 2009, 4:23 AM
Comment by: Yue S. (New York, NY)
This reminds me of a story. Some time ago, my lady friend invited one of her friends to our home in Beijing. Her friend noticed my huge collection of books, browsed through them and informed my friend that she wanted to borrow one to help her improve her English. My friend agreed, and informed me only later. Several months went by, and when I asked about the book, my friend informed me that her friend had "damaged" the book, and had offered to pay me the equivalent of $2.50 in Chinese money, the cost of the bootlegged reprint in China.

The original, I should mention, was autographed by the author with a special reference to our decades of friendship in Africa and Asia.

Where's the justice?
Tuesday July 21st 2009, 5:33 AM
Comment by: Stephen DAG (New York, NY)
The -ism at the center of this story isn't totalitarianism as depicted in 1984. It's the opposite evil, capitalism.
Amazon removed Orwell's books not out of censorship, but to protect the copyright laws of the rightful publisher.
I find it odd and disingenuous that so much fuss has been made of this.
I think the larger cautionary tale here is that technology now makes it possible for an entity, a corporation mind you, to reach into a person's life and remove something they rightfully purchased. It wasn't the buyer who was at fault, it was Amazon for offering the material.
Tuesday July 21st 2009, 9:05 AM
Comment by: Stephen B.
My understanding of what Dennis Baron states is that he favors violation of copyright law re Orwell's "Animal Farm," "1984," and the sale of bootleg versions of Harry Potter movies. Apparently, he doesn't like it when anything is protected under copyright law.
What does Mr. Baron have against us writers making a few bucks every now and again?
Tuesday July 21st 2009, 9:21 AM
Comment by: Brenda S.
Dennis Baron, calm down! Electronic book readers such as Kindle are not quite ready yet--readers and merchants are still working out the bugs. If printed books have copyright protection, then electronic books should have it also. It may take some time to determine the best way to provide it, however. Just as the bookstore on the mall or on the street has a responsibility to maintain respectable business practices, so does Amazon. Amazon should not sell bootlegs--nor remove them from the Kindle devices if they have done so.

Time will tell; some smart person will eventually figure this out--I hope!
Tuesday July 21st 2009, 9:28 AM
Comment by: Karen A.
"Legal versions of the e-books, copyrighted by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, are still available from Amazon."

Amazon should have informed their Kindle readers of the problem and told them they would be exchanging the bootleg copy for a legitimate copy. What's so hard about that?
Tuesday July 21st 2009, 10:06 AM
Comment by: Dennis B. (Urbana, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I'm a firm believer in copyright, and also in the legal process. What Amazon did to protect copyright seems potentially to be illegal, and that's my point.

The Supreme Court has said that desirable goals may not be achieved by illegal ends. Some readers, as I said in my post, think it's fine for Amazon to roam around in their Kindles and remove what it thinks does not belong. But I think that reeks of big-brotherism (a nasty form of capitalism and of totalitarianism in this case).

What makes this scary, too, is the fact that Amazon has become not simply one of those companies that is too big to fail, it has become to bookselling what GM was once to cars. Interestingly, Jonathan Zittrain raised a similar point about this issue in yesterday's NY Times.

I don't think I'm violating copyright by including the link to his op ed essay here:

Tuesday July 21st 2009, 2:19 PM
Comment by: Frances L.
Despite the Orwell/Amazon Affair’s newly won status of “All Time Most Accessible Example of Irony,” that this is even being bloggatized rather than an already-settled expensive and public court case is yet another oracle, Horseman, name your omen of calendars (particularly the digital ones) that await us.

Anyone who relegates Amazon.com’s actions to the ever-growing “big deal/must be paranoid/conspiracy theorist/who cares?” pile is in for some eye opening far sooner than later. Have we consumers become so immersed in consuming that monitoring the potential infringement of any of our rights at any time has become “so last season?”

It’s as if we consumers implore any and all institutions within cyber-shot, as it were, to “PLEASE invade my privacy. Please.” Perhaps Public is the New Private?

Amazon’s actions are reprehensible and an obvious, appalling and horribly distorted use of technology. It’s true: “The law hasn’t caught up with the technology yet.” What if it never does? Ethics must trump all.

We consumers spend obscene amounts at Amazon.com, largely out of convenience (laziness). Who wants to drive to Borders or Barnes and Noble, or, (here’s audaciousness for you!) browse a mom and pop operation selling used books?

Bye, bye Amazon. Hello, best bookstore within in a day’s drive.
Tuesday July 21st 2009, 4:06 PM
Comment by: Dennis B. (Urbana, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I love "Perhaps Public is the New Private" Is there some way that I can quote you on this? Let me know offlist at debaron@illinois.edu, unless you prefer to remain "Frances L."

Here's another example, besides the Barnes & Noble one I cited in my post.

Let's say you just "lease" a book -- you borrow it from the library, to use a traditional model. What if the library decided it wanted the book back before the rental period expired? Usually they just send a recall notice. But could they break into your house and take it back?

Amazon is not "leasing" e-text. They are selling you a permanent copy (says so in the terms of service). True, they put limitations on what you may do with it (you can't resell it, for example). And the terms of service agreement (see link in the post) may be suspended any time Amazon likes.

But the DVDs that you buy (you do buy them, right, instead of downloading bootlegs?) say you can't charge admission. If you do charge admission, you have broken all sorts of laws. But Sony or whoever can't come into your home and rip the DVD out of your expensive home theater system (if it's really expensive, it's a home theatre system). What they can do is have arrested, or charged with a violation -- or they can send you a cease and desist order.

Both buyer and seller have rights. What Amazon did is at best ironic, given the content that was removed, at worst illegal, and in any case it's a public relations mistake, which is why I called it amazonfail 2.0.
Tuesday July 21st 2009, 7:04 PM
Comment by: Robert J.
Amazon's actions, although appalling perhaps, are totally legal. Furthermore, the Google Book Project is not being seriously challenged. I find all these events to be not such a bad thing. Maybe, just maybe, these events will solidify the importance of having hard copies of books in our possession. Those are much harder to take away. And my books will have to be pried from my dead hands. E-books, and the subsequent corporate control over them, cannot EVER substitute for having your own library.
Tuesday July 21st 2009, 8:07 PM
Comment by: Catherine C. (Brisbane Australia)
Looking at this from a Historical point of view, this is alarming to say the least. Any attack against the voice of the people is spelling trouble. The woman may have been wrong but the bigger picture is the changing and judgements in the law.

It all smacks of prelude to Empire, get rid of those who could be a voice against our agenda. Get rid of those who look back into history for repeat patterns. Pull out all stops and send them to hard labour (paying a debt that size) or simply kill them. Make an example of them so they remember that they are not in charge of this world. They are, are so they think?

I see it as a very dangerous trend for humanity.

Voice of a mother, in distress over what could be the life of our children.
Wednesday July 22nd 2009, 12:30 AM
Comment by: Gary H. (Whangaparaoa New Zealand)
Absolutely outrageous. Where will it end? The possibility exists for "Big Brother" to impose censorship and to help me decide what I can and cannot read. The possibility also exists for "Big Brother" to use data contained in kindlelike devices for marketing purposes without the owner's knowledge.
Wednesday July 22nd 2009, 10:53 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
The underlying problem is one of trying to put the new wine of our interactive technology into the old wine of processes and laws appropriate to print media. We need new paradigms for managing information flow.

We should all feel outraged about the restraint of access to important works of literature written by authors who have been in their graves for five decades. In particular, all of us should be properly resentful about the greedy people who are trying to manipulate for their own aggrandizement this classic that was published in 1949.
Friday July 24th 2009, 11:25 AM
Comment by: Brian D. (ATLANTA, GA)
A little paranoid in the ivory tower? Conspiracy theories grab attention (I looked) but in reality, corporations and governments are as vulnerable to technological advances. Microsoft has gone for "monopolistic exploiter" to technological relic over the past decade. Twitter is empowering the individual against an antiquated Iranian regime. Good stuff.

Get a grip - and hang on for a great ride. The next 50 years are going to be amazing for those who can handle the change.
Tuesday July 28th 2009, 4:32 AM
Comment by: Raju Kalampuram
Might be a publicity trick by the Amazon for the real one....
Friday August 7th 2009, 10:02 AM
Comment by: Wightly (Frederick, MD)
I agree with Karen A. It was Amazon's responsibility to proptly replace the book without extra charges. It was their mistake. And, BTW, what happens to all the margin notes that the reader has made? If they are lost it would be an anoyance for some but a serious setback for others who might be writing a paper or teaching.
Friday September 23rd 2011, 4:15 AM
Comment by: Ronald S. (Manassas, VA)
I have much of Orwell's 1984 in my head, as I was reading and studying it diligently.
I worry that Amazon is going to come and pull it out of my head; erase it as it was from an illegal source!
How many fingers am I holding up, Amazon?

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