eBook Burning?

Book burning, at least in modern democracies, is supposed to be something of the past. Indeed, with books taking to devices like the Kindle, burning would seem an unlikely, if possible, exercise. That may or may not be quite so, however, depending on how you read last week's news.

One of the great criticisms, at least from the FOSS camp, of the majority of eBook-readers available is that they are not inherently open devices. While there are options that avoid more in-your-face controls, like Digital Rights Management, ones control over their purchase remains limited — with the exception of sending the device itself, it's not possible to loan out an item from your collection or hand it off to the local public library.

Many are willing to sacrifice these benefits of ownership in order to gain the convenience these devices offer. Many, however, are apparently questioning that decision in light of a brouhaha that blew up between Amazon and owners of its Kindle eBook reader.

According to the New York Times, among other sources, sometime between last Thursday evening and Friday morning, Amazon deleted two books from the Kindle — not just deleted them from its selection of offerings, but remotely removed the books from the machines of those who had purchased them. The cause appears to have been one that plagues the internet and causes considerable consternation to all sides: piracy. The books, which purchasers report were obviously scanned copies of a paper edition, were added to the Kindle offerings through a "self-service" option by a company which lacked rights to the works — an edition of one of the works remains available from its authorized American publisher.

Kindle users are, quite rightly, up in arms over the deletions. Retailers — at least in the physical world — who sell bootlegged goods are subject to having their stock seized and being forced to disgorge their ill-gotten gains, just as Amazon will likely be forced to do. Customers, however, are something of holders in due course, and aren't generally subject to having sellers break down their front doors to repossess such goods. Such is not the case with the Kindle, however — Amazon maintains a digital tether, by which new purchases are delivered and existing ones synchronized. Apparently maintained with it is the ability, and intention, to undertake the digital equivalent of a black bag job.

Users were credited for the deleted books, of course, as they had every right to be — a right most, presumably, would have preferred not to have reason to exercise. Some deserve more than just their money back. The New York Times report quotes one young man, a high school student, who purchased one of the books for a school summer project — when the volume was deleted, so were his notes and annotations. With the summer quickly running out, one hopes his teacher will believe that Amazon ate his homework.

Some have, quite unsurprisingly, have seized on the opportunity to shout from the rooftops that everyone is out to get them. As they would have it, Amazon's actions clearly demonstrate that the Kindle is the key to historical revisionism. Since Amazon can delete books from the Kindle, it, as well as everyone from the government to Satan's secretary, can slip in and remove, rewrite, and repaint your library, paving the way for government mind control and grandmas being sucked into devil worship.

Without denying that such opportunities would without question make certain elements of society salivate, one has to wonder how Amazon's deletion antics change anything. Presumably, if they're going to go to the trouble of slipping in to replace your books with "historically revised" ones, the expectation is that you won't notice. If that's the case, why not just sell them to you in the first place? Why, for that matter, is it limited to eBooks — presumably doctored dialogue could be planted in Barnes & Noble just as easily as the Amazon online store. And, how do we know they haven't already done it? What if they — whomever "they" are — have been systematically slipping sanitized Shakespeare into libraries across the country?

Hysteria aside — and we predict the froth has only begun to float to the top — the incident is certainly a highly-visible argument for wider use of open technologies. Were it a bit more open, someone searching through the source code probably would have noticed the section bearing // Illicitly delete and replace books in order to take over the world and perhaps blown a whistle or two. Users, like the young man now left wishing he'd stocked up on pencils, might also have had backups of their purchases, stashed out of the reach of the sticky-fingered salespeople. It would likely have done little to satisfy the tinfoil hat crowd, but then, what does?

If there is any humor in the story at all — aside, of course, from wild conspiracy theories — it is in the works subject to the surreptitious seizure. Issued from the acclaimed pen of George Orwell, they were — of course — Animal Farm and 1984.

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