Amazon Kindle doomed to repeat Big Brother moment

How it's broke and why it can't be fixed


Yes, Amazon chief Jeff Bezos has apologized for the Orwellian removal of Orwell from digital book readers tucked inside the pockets of American citizens. And yes, the new-age retailer has promised not to repeat its Big Brother moment. But that's not a promise it can promise to keep.

Last week, Bezos and company vanished all copies of both 1984 and Animal Farm from citizen Kindles after the rights holder complained those books had been sold without its permission. A third-party publisher had uploaded the digital texts to Amazon's online Kindle store, claiming - perhaps out of ignorance, perhaps not - that the titles were in the public domain.

It's no surprise that Amazon is obligated to remove pirated titles from its online store. But in rescinding the texts from the readers themselves - texts already paid for and downloaded - the web giant ventured into new territory, undermining the reasonable expectations of all those Orwell-reading Kindle owners. Amazon's terms of service say its ebooks are licensed - not sold. But its marketing boilerplate describes the Kindle as a device for "your library" and "your books." The company didn't break its user contract. But it messed with some peace of mind.

"Amazon is morally obligated to make the possibility of revocation clear to buyers," one Kindle buyer tells The Reg. "I don't know of any other product anywhere where I can take physical possession after paying in full and still have it repossessed without warning or recourse.

"Customers are accustomed to the concept of 'buying' as being permanent. And if it's not permanent, why can't I force them to refund it if I don't like the book? How come the ability to revoke the sale is unilateral, one-sided, asymmetric?"

This uneasy feeling was only exacerbated by the fact that Amazon removed the books out from under Orwell lovers without explicitly telling them it was doing so. There were refund notices sent via email, but nothing more. Many Kindlers were left to wonder why their books had disappeared - while others wondered why there was a refund.

To his credit, Jeff Bezos acknowledged that Amazon's Big Brother moment was ill-conceived. "Our 'solution' to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles," read his online apology. "It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we've received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission."

But that doesn't mean this is the last time Amazon will remove books from citizen Kindles.

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