Amazon Secretly Removes “1984″ From the Kindle

Posted by on July 19th, 2009 in crime, doomed future, ethics, legal, rage against the machine, surveillance, tech

The people who think the Kindle is the way of the future have gotten a very public wake-up call this week:

Thousands of people last week discovered that Amazon had quietly removed electronic copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from their Kindle e-book readers. In the process, Amazon revealed how easy censorship will be in the Kindle age.

In this case, the mass e-book removals were motivated by copyright . A company called MobileReference, who did not own the copyrights to the books 1984 and Animal Farm, uploaded both books to the Kindle store and started selling them. When the rights owner heard about this, they contacted Amazon and asked that the e-books be removed. And Amazon decided to erase them not just from the store, but from all the Kindles where they’d been downloaded. Amazon operators used the Kindle wireless network, called WhisperNet, to quietly delete the books from people’s devices and refund them the money they’d paid.

An uproar followed, with outraged customers pointing out the irony that Amazon was deleting copies of a novel about a fascist media state that constantly alters history by changing digital records of what has happened. Amazon’s action flies in the face of what people expect when they purchase a book. Under the “right of first sale” in the U.S., people can do whatever they like with a book after purchasing it, including giving it to a friend or reselling it. There is no option for a bookseller to take that book back once it’s sold.

Now that the public is up in arms over the Kindle deletions, Amazon is once again promising good behavior. Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener told reporters:

We are changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers’ devices in these circumstances.

That “in these circumstances” bit doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. Sounds like books will be removed again under other (undefined) circumstances.

Regardless of whether you believe Amazon’s promise to leave your Kindle alone, the company has tipped its hand and shown us the dark side of a culture where books are only available in electronic form. If the WhisperNet service from Kindle allows the company to delete books silently from your device, what other information might they have access to? Can the company monitor what you’re reading and when – and then hand that over to law enforcement? Can it replace a book file with a different file whose content is changed?

Perhaps more than anything else, this mass deletion of 1984 has made it clear that collecting e-books is going to require some technical know-how. No e-book is truly yours unless you can get it off your Kindle and onto your computer – hopefully a computer that isn’t connected to the internet.

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3 Responses to “Amazon Secretly Removes “1984″ From the Kindle”

  1. Well Ronk no doubt it’s all in the EULA or terms of service that you agree to when you purchase your kindle. I imagine it’s a lot like how it is with Apples hardware, you may own it but only Apple can say how it can be used and what can be used with it.

  2. Isn’t anyone else getting more and more leery of Amazon’s business practises? It’s not that long ago that they had that censorship thingie going on where any books involving alternative sexualities got sorted away.

  3. Just to add a little more detail to this, the whole thing works like this:

    Amazon’s servers keep track of what books you have, and will auto-snyc with your Kindle. Amazon realised this particular copy of 1984 wasn’t legal and deleted it from their servers. The Kindles then synced with the server, saw the file wasn’t there any more, and reflected this change. As much as I think Kindles are a poor solution, I’m not sure this was quite the case of draconian corporate muscle-flexing, as much as it was just a dumb mistake.

    You can, so I’m told, copy the .AZW files from your Kindle to your computer via USB. Currently seems tricky whether these files can then have their DRM removed, but there’s some discussion on it here: