Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. He’s the author of the forthcoming OUP book A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, look for it in September. On his website The Web of Language, Baron looks at Amazon’s actions over the weekend, pulling copies of George Orwell novels from Kindles. That post is reprinted here for our readers.
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 both 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.