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KAI RYSSDAL: This has been a busy week for Amazon. Their earnings report yesterday didn’t quite meet expectations. Still, the company’s doing well enough. It bought the online shoe store Zappos Wednesday. But it’s what Amazon did last week that’s getting most of the buzz.
Owners of Amazon’s Kindle woke up last Thursday to find a few things missing from their e-book reader. Amazon reached into their devices overnight and deleted copies of the George Orwell classics 1984 and Animal Farm. It did refund the purchase price. Amazon says the books had been illegally offered for sale on its virtual store and it was only trying to protect the rightful owners’ copyright. The company has since promised to stop remotely deleting people’s books.
Commentator Farhad Manjoo doesn’t expect that promise will be kept.
Farhad Manjoo: 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 it’s destined to be abused.
Most of the e-books, videos and mobile apps that we buy online aren’t really ours. All this media comes to us with digital strings that stretch back to a single decider — Amazon, Apple, or whomever — because our devices are now connected to the Internet. Many of these firms’ contracts give them broad rights to remove any book, movie or app that you’ve purchased, at any time, for any reason.
But why stop there? If Apple or Amazon can decide to delete stuff you’ve legally purchased, then surely a court — or, to channel Orwell, perhaps even a totalitarian regime — could force them to do the same. When books were banned in the past, governments could, at best, only block the sale of new copies. But in the digital era, they can go much further.
So far, Amazon has only deleted books that were already available in print. But in our paperless future — when all books exist as files on servers — courts would have the power to make works vanish completely. With a simple ruling over a copyright dispute or a claim of libel, judges could simultaneously block the sale of new books and pull all current copies out of circulation.
The power to delete your books, movies and music remotely is a power no one should have. Here’s one way around this: Don’t buy a Kindle until Amazon updates its terms of service to prohibit remote deletions. Even better, the company ought to remove the technical capability to do so, making such a mass evisceration impossible in the event that a government compels it.
But these problems are bigger than a few select companies. They stem from the legal system’s inability to deal with tethered technology. What we really need are new laws — or else the future could look a lot like Orwell’s 1984.
Ryssdal: Farhad Manjoo is the technology columnist for Slate.com.