Thursday, July 23, 2009

Why did Big Brother remove paid-for content from Amazon's Kindles?; Guardian, 7/22/09

Bobbie Johnson via Guardian; Why did Big Brother remove paid-for content from Amazon's Kindles?: Kindle users were left seething when Amazon removed paid-for content from their devices, while the Popfly and GeoCities services are to close. How did we lose control of the digital products we use?:

""Amazon offered a product, which I legally purchased, and had in my possession until their electronic burglar stole it from me," said another affected user. "Amazon has no right to go into my Kindle's memory and delete something without my knowledge or permission."

Why were people so offended? Customers weren't really angry about the gadget, or the legality of the booksin question – they were furious with the sleight of hand Amazon performed by secretly removing them from their machines. They were aggrieved because they thought they had bought the books when in fact, it turned out, they were merely renting them.

"We have long been concerned that digital rights management is essentially tricking people," says Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the campaign group based in San Francisco. "It's creating a situation where people think they've purchased something – in the way you might purchase a pair of shoes, for example. But from the perspective of the seller, and often from the perspective of the law, it's quite a lot less."

Digital wrongs

No wonder Amazon customers were so annoyed: it's as if they walked into a bookshop to pick up a new best-seller, only to discover later that the shop was actually a library and they had to give it back.

In the past, arguments over these sorts of issues have focused heavily on the use of digital rights management (DRM), the copy protection software that makes it difficult to rip DVDs to your computer, for example, even for personal use.

But the Kindle debacle is more than just book-banning or copyright infringement. There is something even more pernicious going on: not only do these systems restrict your ability to do what you want with your media – they also change the basic DNA of the thing you're purchasing.

So what exactly are we buying into these days?

"If you think of a book as a piece of data, the idea that you own it but then it can be zapped or taken away at any time – I think that's extremely counter-intuitive," says Jonathan Zittrain, professor of internet law at Harvard Law School, who has been watching the situation closely. "Yet it's the way the architecture can work, unless we build in protections."

In his 2008 book The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, Zittrain warned that devices to store data and code are increasingly becoming information appliances that are controlled by the manufacturer, not the user – precisely the situation the Kindle has presented...

Ed Felten, professor of computer science at Princeton University, says the problem is a "lack of transparency".

"If customers had known this sort of thing were possible, they would have spoken up against it," he wrote on his blog, Freedom to Tinker."

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