(Silver Underground) -Imagine this. You’re reading George Orwell’s “1984,” a distopian novel about a tyrannical media state that controls the minds of the people by constantly altering the available language and information. Then, when you’re about a third through the book, and it’s just getting good, it disappears down the memory hole without explanation.
Unbeknownst to many, apparently Amazon has the ability to remotely edit or remove content from people’s Kindle e-book readers. What an ironic choice for the debut of this power.
Justin Gawronski, 17, is suing Amazon after his purchased copy of 1984 was surreptitiously removed from his reader without warning. Frankly, I was amazed to read this high school still assigned 1984. I thought it was removed from the standard curriculum a few years ago, but Gawronski is reportedly in an advanced placement course, so maybe that’s why.
This has resulted in a class action lawsuit against Amazon seeking damages for everyone who had their e-books deleted, but more importantly it seeks a ban on future deletions. Both Orwell’s distopian classics, “1984″ and “Animal Farm” were removed from the Kindle Store, and retroactively from customers’ devices, allegedly over an intellectual property dispute.
Gawronki wrote “I thought that once purchased, the books were mine,” and Jay Edelson, the Chicago lawyer who filed the lawsuit, “Amazon.com had no more right to hack into people’s Kindles than its customers have the right to hack into Amazon’s bank account to recover a mistaken over-payment.” That certainly makes sense to me, but in my experience the state never misses an opportunity to treat 1984 like an instruction manual instead of a cautionary tale.
Amazon’s actions could have far-reaching consequences for state intervention in private media consumption. Is it that hard to imagine? The state long ago decided that library records were a matter of National Security, and most Internet and cellphone service providers hand over your records if the state asks for them. Is it that far fetched to imagine the state would take similar interest in our digital libraries? And if certain books are deemed a matter of National Security, doesn’t it just make sense that they might delete them? For security of course.
Edelson added, “Technology companies increasingly feel that because they have the ability to access people’s personal property, they have the right to do so.” But doesn’t that exactly describe the government?
It’s potentially spookier than just secret delicious. Periodically the state issues so-called “National Security Letters” which are both a demand to cooperate in an investigation by turning over private records and personal data, and a gag order, preventing the recipient from disclosing the content of the letter.
How long before we boot up our Kindle and discover that the state has ordered Amazon to replace segments of library with National Security Letters? For security of course.
Knowing something about e-publishing, I know that it’s possible for authors to make changes to their e-book and correct errors in the updated version. This is really handy because it means missing a typo in the editorial process doesn’t mean you have 10,000 misprints of a book. You can fix it. But doesn’t it also mean that it’s possible for Amazon or the state to make subtle changes to e-books that you may never even notice?
These practices may not be legal yet, but since when has law prevented the state from grabbing power? The point is the technology exists, so it’s just a matter of time, just one national crisis away.
This all has startling implications about literature in general. If we can’t control the literature we supposedly own, e-books represent a dramatic potential destruction of knowledge. In the past, when totalitarian ideologies came to power they burned books, and rebels preserved manuscripts in secret, even when the sentence was death. The next totalitarian regime will have a kill switch on every book… So perk up rebels. If you’ve got books that you want to survive the coming collapse, start backing up your files someplace safe.