News broke over the weekend that Amazon.com decided to remove legally purchased but unlawfully licensed editions of books by George Orwell from the Kindles of some customers. The company did so without asking, although at least it had the good sense of sending an email explaining the action and of issuing refunds for the transactions.
Ever since, Kindle customers and technology watchers alike have been aghast at how Amazon essentially reached into the Kindles of unsuspecting Orwell fans and deleted what they had mistakenly believed to be their private property. Take Hugh D’Andre of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, for instance, who wrote: “Can you imagine a brick-and-mortar bookstore chasing you home, entering your house, and pulling a book from your shelf after you paid good money for it?”
Others such as Jonathan Zittrain have rightly pointed out that you don’t actually own Kindle content. Instead you basically lease it from Amazon.com, who as the custodian of your Kindle controls most of the rights to that material in the end.
Amazon, for its part, has promised never, EVER to take such drastic action again — sort of. “We are changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers’ devices,” notes a company spokesperson, adding, “in these circumstances.” The devil, it seems, is in the details. Thus I am inclined to agree with Cory Doctorow over at BoingBoing who states, “Amazon claims that they won’t do this again. But as every good novelist knows, ‘A gun on the mantlepiece in act one must go off by act three.’”
By now most everyone in the literary and tech worlds has chimed in on the scandal, and the consensus seems to be that Amazon overstepped its bounds. Clearly. But my question is this: why is anyone surprised at all by the company’s actions? Did anyone actually believe that Amazon would act in good faith toward its Kindle customers and their Kindles, when it has a direct portal into the inner lives of each and every one of their e-readers?
The problem stems from a fundamental misrecognition of what Amazon is. It started out as a bookseller, and with its recent foray into Kindle it’s continued to cultivate an air of bookishness. But indeed this is little more than an air. Despite what CEO Jeff Bezos and others might say, Amazon.com is totally and completely dispassionate about books. What it is passionate about is making money, and it will sell anything — from books to toilet paper to excess server capacity or warehouse space — to earn a buck.
What that means, then, is that Amazon does not subscribe to the liberal sensibilities with which book culture has long been associated. In other words, it holds little regard for the sanctity of property (other than its own), privacy, or free expression. For Amazon these are values only insofar as they can contribute to the company’s value stream. When they don’t, or when they prove too costly, those values are dispensed with algorithmically.
The other issue concerns the apparent irony that many of my fellow bloggers have already pointed out. Amazon didn’t just delete any old books from people’s Kindles. Among others it deleted George Orwell’s dystopic novel 1984, which dramatizes life in a futuristic totalitarian state. The problem here, though, is that however “deliciously Orwellian” Amazon’s actions may seem, Amazon.com is not a state. It is a corporation, which is accountable not to “the people” but to its shareholders.
I understand the reasons for wanting to draw the comparison to 1984, but ultimately it’s an inappropriate one. As Daniel J. Solove points out in his wonderful book on privacy The Digital Person, the more apt literary reference in circumstances such as this may be to Kafka’s Trial, in which people are prosecuted without ever fully knowing what if anything they’ve done wrong.