In a “too delicious to be true” story, Amazon has used one of its Kindle’s features to erase copies of the book 1984 from their customer’s devices. Yes, that 1984, the one about the futuristic society that controls and audits everything their citizens read or speak.

Apparently a third-party seller uploaded an illegal version of 1984 to the Amazon web-site, and some users purchased it.  When Amazon found out the version was illegal, they refunded the purchase price *and deleted the copies of the book from the Kindles*.  Almost too funny to be true.  (One of the users was a 17 year old high school student whose notes on the book were also erased by Amazon when the deleted his copy of the book.)

Amazon has already promised not to do something like this again.  However, the story makes clear the deep danger in aggressive digital rights management.  If the owners of the content can control what you read, when you read it, and how you read it, our access to media becomes only a temporary “right” that can be granted and taken away at a whim.  We need to create a set of rules that ensure that information can never be controlled in this way.

One extreme example of the need for rules to protect the free flow of information is the hubbub over the new version of Hemmingway’s “A Movable Feast”.  Depending on who one talks to, Hemmingway’s grandson Sean has either edited the book to make it truer to how Hemmingway really felt about his first wife or has altered Hemmingway’s text to change history about that relationship.  (It helps muddy the water that the first wife is Sean’s grandmother.)  The publisher is releasing the new version, which will now be compared endlessly by scholars to the 1964 original.  What would happen in the digital world of the future?  Would the publisher be able to change the text of everyone’s original version to the new updated content?  Presumably noone would lobby for such a world … but if we aren’t careful to constrain contracts between publishers and digital device owners, we could accidentally end up living in it!

How wonderful that Amazon made this mistake with the book 1984.  It’s not the greatest of the anti-utopian novels — that’s Huxley’s Brave New World! — but perhaps we were too quick to accuse it of wandering too far from reality …


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