Some owners of Kindle, Amazon's popular electronic book reader, found two books missing from their devices when they woke up Thursday morning. The missing titles were George Orwell's classics 1984 and Animal Farm, which users had bought from Amazon's online book store. The company used its wireless access to users' Kindles and remotely deleted the books overnight without their prior permission. In a public statement, Amazon explained that these books were originally made available on its book-store by a company that did not have rights to the titles, and the move was therefore aimed to protect copyrights of the legal rights owner. Amazon refunded affected readers the price they paid for the books.
While Amazon's move seems logical, it was quite creepy for Kindle owners who did not realize that Amazon had such rights, authority and even the ability once they had purchased the books. Amazon's action exposed its unprecedented powers - the ability to delete any book a user buys from the world's largest book-store, whenever, and for whatever reason Amazon deems appropriate.
This is a huge challenge in a digital world where more and more content, whether books, videos, songs, newspapers, magazines, etc, will only exist in bits and bytes, tethered to big content aggregators like Amazon and Apple even after buyers' outright purchase. Aggregator's contracts provide them very broad rights. Buyers don't seem to "own" the digital content in true sense, as they're used to in the physical world, but rather "rent" it.
Interestingly, Amazon's license agreement for Kindle seems to provides users the right to keep a permanent copy of purchased material. Legal challenge to Amazon's deletions looks very likely.
Retailers in the physical world cannot force their way into buyers' homes and take back purchased material. Amazon did exactly that by deleting the purchased digital books. The Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology, used by sellers to protect un-authorized use of purchased content, also provides sellers digital strings always connected to that content via Internet.
This power can be very easily abused.
Governments, totalitarian regimes, courts, etc, can order total wipe-out of content they find objectionable for whatever reasons in this digital age - not just blocking future sales, but deleting every existing copy from central servers and every purchased digital copy from owners' connected devices. Such unprecedented control over content by a few for-profit companies can severely restrict free exchange of ideas - a core requirement in a free democratic society.
No company should have this capability.
While Amazon's deletion is not one of the extreme scenarios mentioned above, it provides a real life example, no matter how innocent, that exposes inadequacy of outdated current legal statutes for today's increasingly digital world. Legal reviews of Google's book deal with publishers is another similar example. I'm sure lawyers, civil libertarians and customer advocates will take a very close look at the Amazon incident.
In the interim, Kindle owners and its prospective buyers should apply pressure on Amazon to voluntarily change its policies and remove its technical ability that allows it to remotely delete purchased content without buyers' explicit prior permission.