Some months ago, King Banaian dragged his readers through Banaian’s angst about getting a Kindle; apparently in the end he finally did get one. Spot counseled him to stick with a book, because, inter alia, the consequences of dropping a book in the bath tub while reading were not as ruinous. Spot’s not going to find the link for you, boys and girls, but that was the gist of it.
Now, Jack Balkin at Balkinization tells us about another really good reason to stick with the book and avoid the Kindle:
The New York Times reports that Amazon.com found out that the publisher of Kindle versions of George Orwell's books 1984 and Animal Farm decided that it didn't want to give the rights to a Kindle version. So Amazon.com used its wireless connection to each Kindle to delete copies on various owners' Kindles and refunded their money. You see, because of the wireless connection, Amazon.com knows what books are on your Kindle and it can delete them or modify them at will.
Apparently, the irony of deleting a book about Big Brother watching you was lost on both the publisher and Amazon.com.
This story is a perfect example of Jonathan Zittrain's analysis of "tethered appliances," that is, appliances like the Kindle and the iPhone that feature a combination of hardware and software services connected by a network. The manufacturer of the tethered appliance can easily discover what consumers are doing with the product, can restrict what end-users do with the hardware, and can alert the features of the product by remote control. It simultaneously offers the possibility of privacy invasions and retroactive alterations of features. The Kindle story shows that it also offers the possibility of private censorship.
They’re watching you, Professor. Bwahahahahahahah!
Unlike computers, where you have some ability to defend yourself with firewalls, cookie managers, and virus and spyware software; with the Kindle, apparently you’re standing there entirely in the buff.
After having had a little fun at the Professor’s expense, let Spot say this really is disturbing. A similar situation undoubtedly exists with all the iPhones and Blackberries (or should it be Blackberrys?) out there. Spot has also read rumors that Microsoft can and sometimes does modify your computer operating system even when you’ve set the update function NOT to download updates or to at least inform you before it does.
Here’s a bit more from Professor Balkin:
In a sense, this story is too good to be true. It is a vivid demonstration of the possible dangers of new forms of closed or tethered network services, and the way they allow companies to exercise control over end-users at a distance, without the knowledge of end users.
For centuries, we have understood, or rather believed, that owning books came with certain rights, including the right to keep what we purchase and to use it, mark it up, and sell it in any way we like. We were free to purchase books and keep them in our homes, without telling anybody what we were reading, or indeed, what page we had last looked at. Amazon's Kindle system upends all of these expectations. Amazon knows what books you have on your Kindle, and, in theory, it can even know the book you are currently reading, and even the last page you've read on each of the books you own. It can delete books, add books, or modify books, all without your permission. It can change features of the Kindle at will. In upending our assumptions about our freedoms to read books in private and use them as we see fit, Amazon threatens many of the basic freedoms to read we have come to expect in a physical world. If we want to preserve these freedoms, we will have to reform copyright law and privacy law to control the new intermediaries who can control us at a distance.
Jack Balkin is a professor of law at Yale.
Update: Forgot the link to the Balkinization post; sorry.