Amazon.com is facing a class-action lawsuit for remotely deleting two George Orwell titles, 1984 and Animal Farm, from all its customers’ Kindles. Justin Gawronski, 17, a Michigan high school student, and Antoine J. Bruguier, a California Kindle user, claim that Amazon had no right to remove the books from their wireless e-book devices. The knowledge that Amazon has that “technological ability,” Gawronski and Bruguier say, might have influenced many people’s decision to buy the Kindle.
Despite the ironic coincidence that 1984 was one of the books deleted, Amazon’s intent in removing them was less sinister than any Big Brother-like desire to suppress free thinking. The company had learned that the third party who uploaded the two Orwell classics actually had no rights to the e-book versions. And Amazon refunded the purchase price to all readers. And even before Gawronski filed his claim, they promised never to do it again.
But Amazon’s decision to reach into privately-owned Kindles in order to delete the unauthorized material demonstrates that companies already have absolute technological control over electronic literature. As with AT&T’s temporary block of 4chan.org last week, Amazon’s specific rationale for cutting off users’ access to information appeared rational enough; but the larger significance holds alarming implications for free speech. If e-books are the future, how can we guarantee that the texts we purchase remain irrevocably our own private property?
“Amazon.com had no more right to hack into people’s Kindles than its customers have the right to hack into Amazon’s bank account to recover a mistaken overpayment,” lawyer Jay Edelson, who filed the lawsuit, told CBS News. Others have questioned how remote e-book deletion is legally any different than if Amazon had broken into users’ homes, taken their purchased copies, and left a refund in their place.
Without laws to prevent other, more arbitrary acts of remote censorship, 2024 starts to look just a little bit too much like 1984. We’ll be keeping an eye on this “Kindle ate my homework” case to see if present and future Kindle, smartphone, and general electronic media users secure a judicial promise that their books are their own, in pixels or on paper.