Book and Reading News

Why the Kindle 1984 deletions actually matter: post hoc restraint

The flash-fire reaction to news that Amazon had automatically and preemptively deleted copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from Kindle users’ accounts and devices, despite the fact they had been paid for the copies, was bizarre for its rationalizations of a demonstration of a de facto technology for censorship. It seems that Kindle enthusiasts want to believe in DRM when it makes the device look virtuous. I like my Kindles (we have two), but Amazon’s responding to a pirated copy of a book by deleting them represents the potential for something new in publishing and potential censorship: post hoc restraint.

First off, yes, Amazon did delete the books because they were pirated copies. They should prevent pirated copies from being sold in the first place and should have done a better job of checking what they publish before making it available to buyers. This is incumbent upon Amazon as the distributor, no matter how cheap it is to publish to Kindle devices, to confirm that they are doing business with the person or company that has the right to publish the work. Amazon’s got to work harder to vet the publications it allows on its system. A rights registry would be a big help, just not one controlled by Google.

The wrong way to handle it was the way Amazon handled it. Rather than deleting the book and giving a refund, Amazon should have purchased legal copies and replaced the pirated copies. Then, it could have been presented as a benefit of buying from Amazon. Instead, they appeared to demonize the buyer of the unauthorized publication by taking it away.

Instead of sending the email pirated 1984 buyers received, Amazon should sent a note saying: “We’re sorry, you received a corrupted copy of George Orwell’s 1984, it is not up to the standards we expect when we sell a book. Here is a new copy of a really useful edition of the book.” Amazon lost money the way it handled the problem, it should, at least, have spent that money on buying good will.

Let me take that back

For centuries, people have feared prior restraint, the judicial or institutional suppression of a publication, because the principle of free choice demands that people have the opportunity to read a document and decide for themselves. We’ve only shed prior restraint partially and unevenly in the past century. And, frankly, throughout history, information has managed to get out even when censored by the government or the church. The Reformation demonstrated the power of the press to circumvent institutions of censorship, as has the American and French Revolutions, the revolutions of 1848, etc.

Now, however, it is clear that after a document has been distributed it can be revoked by an entity that controls access to the device on which the document is read, in other words post hoc restraint (as distinct from the fallacious argument for causality known as “post hoc ergo propter hoc“). In an age when companies freely sign agreements with governments, such as the Chinese Communist Party’s government (it is, in effect, both the government of the party and the country, so it has deeply invested interests in controlling information), that limit what people may see on the Internet, a post hoc restraint technology is especially threatening to personal freedom. If, after taking the risk of downloading a controversial book, it can be removed from your e-reader and you, the reader, can be targeted for police attention, reading becomes dangerous. A government could also circulate a sanctioned book simply to see who was interested in reading it.

This is also why the idea of advertising in books is terribly invasive to personal privacy. We have managed, to this point and only for the most part, to insulate our reading from commercial interest and surveillance.

Monopolies in publishing create powerful gatekeepers

A company that owns the end-to-end distribution infrastructure can become a servant of vested interests, whether its own or those of a government or political allies, becomes a mechanism for political and intellectual control. Amazon, Sony, Apple (with the iPhone), Microsoft, and Google (with its Web services and applications and OSes) all represent potentially devastating systems for thought control, making the 1984 situation all the more ironic.

Open systems that allow a variety of devices and documents to interact without any intervention by the providers of documents or access to services, is necessary to ensure humans can still subvert institutional control of their reading. I’ve also argued that cryptography in books would facilitate a wide range of personal and communications features, such as private annotations and public discussion embedded in books, and that would be very useful for systemic control of reading if it is not an opt-in service and the service providers dedicated to readers’ privacy. Hence, the providers of such services will need to be insulated from being economically interested in the content of what they encode and communicate.

Some have written that buying a Kindle is a waste of money because Amazon could simply delete all your books after you pay for them. That’s not the danger here, since any company that did that would not stay in business long. The fatal hazard is in a company that can selectively enforce censorship or otherwise restrict access to ideas, for whatever reason. There must always be alternative channels for getting books and having private access to books’ content.

It’s early in this e-volution. We haven’t hit our Reformation, yet. It will only be after that conflagration that personal privacy and choice will be self-evidently obvious, but the 1984 “refunds” gave us a brief glimpse of the potentially devastating downside to a fully digital information infrastructure.