The erosion of our expectation of autonomy, and the Kindle Pledge

As much as DRM bothers me, I’ve tolerated some implementations of it, specifically Apple iTunes, Apple’s iPhone App Store, and the Amazon Kindle, because I’ve gotten more value than pain out of them. And, usually, the DRM didn’t get in the way. But the slippery slope of DRM has reached a dangerous point with the made-for-blog-headlines Amazon story of the last few days.

This weekend, Amazon surreptitiously deleted all copies of Orwell’s “1984” from every Kindle, because of … well it doesn’t really matter, does it? Users legitimately bought a book in a store operated by Amazon, and a few days later it was gone. Jonathan Zittrain saw this coming. Ed Felten makes a solid point that a central issue is transparency, which is very insightful. I’m not sure if it’s the central issue, though. Consider the way the Kindle blog covered the story:

For example, the Electronic Frontier Foundation believes the agreement doesn’t leave room for Amazon to take away already purchased books. Such speculation is most likely pointless, however, since the illegality of the Orwell books distributed probably skirts around the terms of use and Amazon wouldn’t have done the deletions if their lawyers hadn’t cleared it in the first place.

Ah, the lawyers said it was ok, so it must be ok.

The central issue here is, in my opinion, the erosion of our expectation of autonomy. We’re becoming accustomed to fewer and fewer rights. Of course you can’t fast-forward through the FBI warning of a DVD, that operation is “not allowed.” Of course songs can’t be shared on more than 5 ipods. Of course you can’t lend your Kindle book to someone else. Of course Apple can prevent your iPhone from running an app that competes with one of their built-in apps. Of course Amazon can delete a book if someone on their end screwed up, never mind the poor high-school kid who stored all of his school report notes that were then deleted when the book was yanked.

At the core of this erosion of autonomy is a shift in ownership. When the Amazon team revoked the book from every Kindle, they certainly didn’t think it was comparable to walking into someone’s house and burning down their books. Because, from their point of view, the Kindle is within their circle of control. The Kindle is not autonomous. It’s not yours, and its content is not yours. Because if it were yours, then wouldn’t their action indeed be the equivalent of breaking into your house in the middle of the night and burning down that book (maybe they would only do that to a certain Bradbury book)? Ed Felten is right that this is a breach in customer expectation, that Amazon was not transparent about their power over your Kindle. But even if they had been transparent, there would still be this problem of autonomy: Amazon behaves as if they own the Kindle and everything on it. Just read their statement on this issue:

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

in these circumstances? What about in other circumstances? How precisely is Amazon defining “these circumstances?”

It’s time to take a stand against this. In addition to the price of the Kindle, I paid for each book I downloaded. I want a statement from Amazon that clearly states:

  1. once I’ve purchased a book, it is mine in exactly the same sense as a physical book is mine: Amazon cannot peer into my Kindle and remove data, ever, without a search warrant or similar level of authority.
  2. a solution on transferring of a book from one Kindle to another is in the works.

That’s my Kindle Pledge: until the above two points are addressed, I’m not buying another book from the Amazon Kindle store let alone a second Kindle, even if mine breaks.

UPDATE: Jeff Bezos apologizes for the way this situation was handled. Okay, that’s pretty good (not quite good enough for me to revoke my Kindle Pledge, though). If you read the comments, it’s clear that some people think book deletion was completely legitimate… once again showing how our expectations of autonomy have changed significantly.

4 thoughts on “The erosion of our expectation of autonomy, and the Kindle Pledge

  1. I’ll take the Kindle pledge particularly because I can’t not take the pledge, along with everyone else living outside of Fort USA.

  2. I’ll take the Kindle pledge particularly because I can’t not take the pledge, along with everyone else living outside of Fort USA.

  3. Property ownership is my central issue with DRM and connected devices. Owning a thing means it operates at my behest and nobody else’s, but we routinely observe connected, software-driven and DRM-enabled objects obeying their manufacturers sooner than their individual, ostensible owners.

    Marketers of connected devices do so as if the devices were any other piece of personalty, but I believe they exist entirely in their own class. There is often a hidden, or at least much-downplayed mechanism that enables the vendor to remotely control or extract information from the product. This class of mechanism exists in electronic devices as diverse as mobile phones, televisions and FitBits. Some of these mechanisms are necessary for operation; many ultimately represent hidden costs to the consumer.

    As science fiction author Bruce Sterling recently noted, objects in the 21st century are print-outs of social relationships. Perhaps connected devices more so than others. It is evident that consumers at large are inexperienced with the nature of this new kind of relationship, and lack the wherewithal to properly evaluate what is tantamount to a bait and switch.

  4. Property ownership is my central issue with DRM and connected devices. Owning a thing means it operates at my behest and nobody else’s, but we routinely observe connected, software-driven and DRM-enabled objects obeying their manufacturers sooner than their individual, ostensible owners.

    Marketers of connected devices do so as if the devices were any other piece of personalty, but I believe they exist entirely in their own class. There is often a hidden, or at least much-downplayed mechanism that enables the vendor to remotely control or extract information from the product. This class of mechanism exists in electronic devices as diverse as mobile phones, televisions and FitBits. Some of these mechanisms are necessary for operation; many ultimately represent hidden costs to the consumer.

    As science fiction author Bruce Sterling recently noted, objects in the 21st century are print-outs of social relationships. Perhaps connected devices more so than others. It is evident that consumers at large are inexperienced with the nature of this new kind of relationship, and lack the wherewithal to properly evaluate what is tantamount to a bait and switch.

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