How Amazon's remote deletion of e-books from the Kindle paves the way for book-banning's digital future.

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July 20 2009 5:53 PM

Why 2024 Will Be Like Nineteen Eighty-Four

How Amazon's remote deletion of e-books from the Kindle paves the way for book-banning's digital future.

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The digitization of media doesn't necessarily make it more likely for books to get banned. Art is banned across the world for all kinds of reasons. In the United States, the usual justification is copyright infringement. Earlier this month, for instance, a judge issued an injunction against the publication of a Swedish author's unauthorized "sequel" to J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. For other examples, take a look at Stay Free! magazine's collection of "illegal art": You'll find Todd Haynes' 1987 film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which played at several film festivals before all copies were ordered recalled and destroyed (Haynes hadn't obtained legal clearance for the music in the film); a CD's worth of songs shot down due to allegations of unlicensed sampling; and lots of parody comics—including of Family Circus and Mickey Mouse—that never saw the light of day.

The difference between today's Kindle deletions and yesteryear's banning is that the earlier prohibitions weren't perfectly enforceable. At best, publishers that found their books banned by courts could try to recall all books in circulation. In 2007, Cambridge University Press settled a lawsuit with Khalid bin Mahfouz, a Saudi Arabian banker who sued for libel over a book that alleged he'd funded terrorism. Cambridge agreed to ask libraries across the world to remove books from their shelves. But the libraries were free to refuse. If bin Mahfouz had sued over a Kindle book, on the other hand, he could ask the court not only to stop sales but also to delete all copies that had already been sold. As Zittrain points out, courts might consider such a request a logical way to enforce a ban—if they can order Dish Network to disable your DVR, they can also tell Amazon or Apple to disable a certain book, movie, or song.

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But that sets up a terrible precedent. Amazon deleted books that were already available in print, but in our paperless future—when all books exist as files on servers—courts would have the power to make works vanish completely. Zittrain writes: "Imagine a world in which all copies of once-censored books like Candide, The Call of the Wild, and Ulysses had been permanently destroyed at the time of the censoring and could not be studied or enjoyed after subsequent decision-makers lifted the ban." This may sound like an exaggeration; after all, we'll surely always have file-sharing networks and other online repositories for works that have been decreed illegal. But it seems like small comfort to rely on BitTorrent to save banned art. The anonymous underground movements that have long sustained banned works will be a lot harder to keep up in the world of the Kindle and the iPhone.

The power to delete your books, movies, and music remotely is a power no one should have. Here's one way around this: Don't buy a Kindle until Amazon updates its terms of service to prohibit remote deletions. Even better, the company ought to remove the technical capability to do so, making such a mass evisceration impossible in the event that a government compels it. (Sony and Interead—makers of rival e-book readers—didn't immediately respond to my inquiries about whether their devices allow the same functions. As far as I can tell, their terms of service don't give the companies the same blanket right to modify their services at will, though.)

But these problems are bigger than a few select companies. As Zittrain points out, they come about because of the law's inability to deal with tethered technology—devices that are both yours and not yours, in your possession but under the orders of companies far away. Amazon's promise to do better next time is going to be pretty hard to keep. The company says it won't delete any more books—but it hasn't said what it will do when someone alleges that one of its titles is libelous or violates someone else's copyright. This is bound to happen sooner or later, and the company might find itself deleting books once more. To solve this problem, what we really need are new laws.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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