For months many consumers have lamented the absence of the Kindle, Amazon’s popular electronic book reader, from the Canadian market. Now in its second version, the Kindle has proven to be a major success story in the United States with a loyal user base that relish the chance to wirelessly access books, periodicals, and web content on a single, sleek device. Yet as my weekly technology law column notes (Toronto Star version, homepage version) two recent controversies cast doubt on the Kindle and in the process highlighted how consumers may find themselves vulnerable as they embrace electronic books.
The first issue arose soon after the second edition of Kindle debuted. The new device featured impressive text-to-voice technology that enabled users to play the content aloud. Just as groups representing the blind celebrated a mainstream device that would provide new access to millions of written works, Amazon backtracked, allowing book publishers to disable the feature. Within weeks many larger publishers had shut off the read-aloud functionality, concerned that it could hamper audiobook sales. That decision led to a recent lawsuit at Arizona State University, where the National Federation of the Blind challenged plans to use the device to distribute electronic textbooks to students.
Earlier this month another Kindle “feature” garnered negative attention. Without any warning or consent, Amazon remotely deleted copies of two books from thousands of Kindle devices. Few customers were aware that Amazon retained the technical capability to erase e-books from their devices, yet when the company learned that two books had been distributed without proper authorization, it simply deleted the books and promised a refund.
The case proved that fact is often stranger than fiction since the books were George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, conjuring up new images of the Orwellian vision of information control. The deletion sparked immediate outrage. Experts noted that Amazon had no legal obligation to delete the books. Furthermore, a bookseller could never enter someone’s home to reclaim a book, yet Amazon surprisingly had the power to do so with its electronic books. In fact, the deletion process even erased users’ annotations and notes, with one summer student claiming that weeks of work was lost in the process.
While Amazon has since apologized and promised that it won’t repeat the Orwell misstep, the reality is that this incident is only the latest in a long line in which companies prove to be their own worst enemy by undermining consumer confidence in the digital economy.
Whether the infamous Sony rootkit case in which the record company surreptitiously installed computer programs on users’ computers that created security vulnerabilities or the steady stream of online music and video services that utilize digital locks that later leave consumers shut out of their content when business circumstances or technological needs change, the use of digital rights management technologies to control devices or content regularly backfires.
Last week the Canadian government launched a copyright consultation that links these technologies with government policy. One of the questions asks “what kinds of changes would best position Canada as a leader in the global, digital economy?” Part of the answer may involve avoiding laws that promote business models that may later leave consumers at a loss should a company unilaterally decide to hit the delete button.