Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

What Book Will Amazon Delete Next?

1984Last week, Amazon acknowledged that it deleted some copies of “1984″ and “Animal Farm” from customers’ Kindles. So what book will be next?

I ask this because while Amazon has said it won’t repeat what it did last week, it hasn’t actually sworn off remote book-removal–or  remote anything-removal, for that matter–altogether.

Which means the e-commerce giant can do it again.

On Friday, Amazon told me that it yanked the George Orwell novels from customers’ e-book readers because they were “illegal”–bootlegged copies it never should have sold in the first place. “We are changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers’ devices in these circumstances,” the company said in a statement.

See the problem? It’s the, big, gaping “in these circumstances” loophole.

I’m still holding out a tiny bit of hope that Amazon (AMZN) is never going to delete a book, or anything it sells its customers, ever again. And that its oddly worded nonpromise is just an oddly worded nonpromise.

But I’ve repeatedly asked Amazon PR folks to mollify me, or at least spell out the circumstances in which they would delete a book again, and I haven’t gotten any response. So I’m fearing the worst: Amazon reserves the right to yank books out of your Kindle, but won’t tell you why or when until it happens.

If you want to play devil’s advocate, you can note that other e-commerce companies have similar abilities. Apple (AAPL) has disclosed that it has a “kill switch” that allows it to remotely wipe out apps from iPhones, ostensibly for security reasons.

And theoretically, the ability to wipe out a rogue iFart app should be as disconcerting as the ability to make a book disappear–intellectual property is intellectual property. But it just doesn’t rankle in the same way.

What to do? Slate columnist Farhad Manjoo wants new legislation to tackle the problem. But even if you like that approach, it’s not going to happen anytime soon–our lawmakers have full plates these days. My suggestion: Demand that Amazon, Apple or whoever else has remote access to your gadgets spell out exactly when, if ever, they will forcibly take back what they sold you. Or don’t buy from them at all.


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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik