Amazon Deletes Your Books

In a Classic Digital Restrictions Management style power exercise, Amazon recently deleted several legally purchased books from customers’ Kindle 2 devices without their knowledge or consent. The delete commands were issued from Amazon’s central systems and faithfully executed by slave devices upon receiving commands. The result was that the users were no longer able to access the books they purchased, as they saw a refund for the prices they paid initially for the purchase.

Amazon later claimed that it turned out they didn’t have the rights to distribute the books, so they felt it was necessary to remove the purchased books from customers’ devices involuntarily. Later they apologized and "promised" they would never do such a thing again.

Where does one start telling what’s wrong with all this? This is wrong on several levels.

First, on the surface, it is wrong that customers can purchase books (or anything for that matter) and later have the seller be able to arbitrarily take it away at their convenience. This does not make any sense with any sales transaction in the physical or the virtual world. For example, you don’t buy the TV at your local electronics retailer, then have the salesperson chase you down the next day, enter your house without your knowledge or consent, take the TV back, leave you a check on the TV stand and write a note saying they didn’t really have the permission from the TV manufacturer to sell that unit yet, so tough luck, it’s been taken back. Those sellers actions would be illegal for several reasons, including breaking and entering, stealing, and violating doctrine of first sale. And guess what – people who point out EULA and small prints – the above would still be illegal even if your TV came with the paper and/or digital copy of the EULA after you unboxed it.

Second, just below the surface, it is wrong that what Amazon did is even remotely considered legal in the USA. Consider if the roles were reversed – a freelancer wrote a piece of software for a large corporation (say, Amazon). The freelancer wrote the software with the backdoor to the company’s server and network that runs the software. Later, arbitrarily without Amazon’s knowledge or consent, the freelancer removed the software and notified Amazon – tough luck, I didn’t really mean to write and give this software for you, here’s your money back if you want it. The freelancer would be in a huge legal trouble. I wonder why it is OK for Amazon to freely be able to do this at their leisure.

And finally, it troubles me that Amazon is able to sell devices with these remotely controlled "features" that are able to manipulate and remove purchased content, and their customers faithfully buying and using these devices knowing those "features" are there. Why is anyone surprised that Amazon exercised the power customers gave them with their purchases of the device and books? Why would they put those remotely controlled "features" in the device if they never intended to use them? Of course they put the time, money and effort into creating, designing and programming them just for these types of scenarios with full intention to use them as they pleased. Is anyone really surprised? By reading news articles, blogs and other online content, a lot of people actually were; which is in itself surprising – Amazon simply used the tool that their customers empowered them with.

And now Amazon is "promising" they will not do that in the future and apologizing for the inconvenience. Some people say that’s the proper thing to do; some say they should give the books back too in addition to the apology. But most seem to be OK with Amazon leaving this feature in these devices and issuing a "promise" not to do it again. OK, great, Mr. Bob from local electronic store. You entered my house, took my TV that I bought from you yesterday without my knowledge or consent. But since you apologized, everything is OK now. In fact, I’ll be buying another TV from you next week. Right? Wrong! That’s ridiculous. If Amazon wants to correct what they did, in addition to all the above they have to unconditionally remove these remotely controlled "features" on the Kindle devices. There should be no more manipulating program/data on users’ devices without their explicit consent (i.e. not some fine print somewhere in the EULA).

I hope that, since this was such a widely publicized event, it will bring more understanding in people’s minds that these types of practices should be avoided. Hopefully not avoided by more legislation, but by understanding and by customers making informed decisions when purchasing products (hear that, Apple?). The matter of the fact is, if you want to own what you buy in the virtual world, the first important step is to demand Free (as in freedom) software, open data/document formats, and absolutely no DRM.