It seems somehow very appropriate that George Orwell’s novels 1984 and Animal Farm are at the center of a controversy (and now lawsuit) surrounding Amazon’s unannounced deletions of the books from its customers’ Kindle ebook readers. It seems that the copies of the books Amazon had been selling were unauthorized versions, and when the bookselling giant discovered the oversight, they simply deleted via remote control all copies of the titles from their customers’ devices. Now Amazon is being sued by two of its dissatisfied customers–one of them a 17-year old high school student reading the book for a school assignment who lost not only his copy of the book, but also his digital notes which were to be turned in as homework.
Amazon’s wireless tampering raises interesting questions about how much digital reach corporations will be allowed to have into our homes and our lives. The lawsuit alleges that Amazon never told its customers that it “possessed the technological ability or right to remotely delete digital content purchased through the Kindle store.” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has attempted to smooth over the controversy with a public apology for the deletions, saying that they were “stupid.” But Jay Edelson, the Chicago lawyer who filed the lawsuit said, “Amazon.com had no more right to hack into people’s Kindles than its customers have the right to hack into Amazon’s bank account to recover a mistake overpayment. Technology companies increasingly feel that because they have the ability to access people’s personal property, they have the right to do so. That is 100 percent contrary to the laws of this country.”
One wonders what George Orwell himself would have made of all this. While the totalitarian states he wrote about were government-run, in this age where the line between corporations and governments becomes blurrier by the minute, perhaps we are closer to living out some skewed version of an Orwellian future than we realize.