The Amazon Kindle and an Orwellian Misstep

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.


  1. Bruce Campbell says:

    Great synopsis, thanks Michael!
    The behaviour of companies that want to cash in on digital fulfillment processes, and the dramatically reduced overheads that go with this channel to market, reveal the horribly outmoded strategic thinking that is going in in the boardrooms of companies like Amazon. Rather than thinking about the huge amounts of increased profit they receive by reducing the costs of production and distribution to zero, they think about the “losses” they are susceptible to due to the “ease of piracy” thanks to the very same processes that returned their huge profit margins! MBAs and Finance types, get this straight: you cannot have it both ways. Either your organizations profit from reducing your costs to market, or you profit from trying to screw your customer base by changing the rules for the fair use of your “products” — I know the goal is for all of you to earn such outrageous amounts of quick money that you can all retire to your own private islands, but that’s a pipe-dream. There is only one Exit Strategy for life.

    The costs of trying to screw your customer base are very high indeed, but not in currencies that you recognize. Those strategies will backfire, and the loss of credibility ultimately trumps any short-term retention of margin. Governments do not maintain respect for the rule of law by passing unenforceable laws; can you see the transfer here? Products that cost nothing to produce are not worth protecting from piracy. Get your collective heads out of your 20th-Century, economy of scarcity asses, and start thinking about what the possibilities REALLY are, not trying to maintain a status quo that is long, long gone. Cory Doctorow’s excellent review of Chris Anderson’s “Free” does a great take on this. You can read that here:

  2. The sad thing is that while companies undermine consumer confidence, since publishers make exclusive deals and therefore there is no real competition available, consumers are actually the ones who get the short end of the stick. In this case, we either play with Amazon or go home. Costs in this case are not that Amazon does badly but that consumers cannot use electronic book readers to read their books with unless they give in to Amazon’s criteria.

    Free Games. Check out what I have been building lately!

  4. Sal478938 says:

    I found this article very interesting.

    Bit of a side step on the topic, but it just shows you where big content really wants things headed…

  5. Jason Congdon says:

    Very interesting … though I think in some ways the analogy this amalysis centres upon – entering someone’s residence to reclaim a book – obscures some important differences between new digital environments and old material environments. I don’t think there’s anything Orwellian at play in the example, so much as yet another grey area that emerges whenever a new technology emerges.

    It’s almost always nearly impossible to foresee the minutiae of novel situations that new technologies create. In this case, it’s a uniquely unilateral form of repossession, but I think Amazon’s wrong was more a matter of poor manners than anything as invasive as the analogy suggests. In other words, they should have knocked before entering – or better, not bothered to delete the books (perhaps sending a message of apology encouraging support of the wronged publisher and author?).

    These kinds of new technology-induced gaffes happen all the time. When faced with new environments and new media, we muddle through, guided by what we know, guarding against what we don’t.

    Perhaps the only constant is to remember that, especially when we’re uncertain of our actions and their consequences, we’re best served by practicing our best and humblest manners.

  6. What other “features” are there?
    For instance, can they replace a book on the Kindle without the knowledge or authorization of the owner? Presumably this would be simple to do through the delete/install.

    This opens up all sorts of cans of worms… Even if Amazon never did this themselves, it creates a security hole that can be exploited.

  7. Hey, didn’t we first see these things on the original Star Trec………hum another thing to come true from that show

  8. Bob Morris says:

    Bruce – Last I checked, Kindle prices were way, way below print prices, so I think you’re talking nonsense here

  9. I am not so sure I’m lamenting the lack of reader or confident in the fact that I got rid of the one I had as being somewhere between irrelevant, and dangerous. I never liked how closed the system was, Sony’s much longer tried technology had opened up before the kindle was even out, and is made so this kinda of even would never happen. Additionally, I never understood the idea of whispernet being cdma based when traveling with the reader was supposed to be such a big feature.

    I guess the bottom line is that I am not surprised. The Kindle is a very US-centric device and was designed in the environment that is US copyright. You don’t own any of your books, you are merely licensed to read it by the US publisher.

  10. Optimistic Dude says:

    Amazon/Kindle is certainly making great strides in the electronic book industry. Electronic textbooks in higher education is one way to keep costs from running beyond reach of the average college student. Sure, there are a few hiccups, but I believe they’ll work them out and be a leader in e-publishing.