Probably for the first time since starting this blog, I received an email from a publicity person touting a blog post that I actually thought worth reading. Others of you may have received this entry from the Oxford University Press blog: Amazon Fail 2.0: Bookseller’s Big Brother removes Orwell’s Big Brother from Kindles everywhere, by Dennis Baron. In full disclosure, I don’t really know Professor Baron, but I did take a seminar from him my first semester of graduate school – introduction to the teaching of rhetoric. I recall writing an essay arguing that the concept of plagiarism arose during 18th century intellectual property disputes and was inherently capitalist, and thus all the Marxist rhetoric instructors out there shouldn’t be bothered by the practice of plagiarism. But all this is irrelevant prelude.
Baron argues that we should beware giants such as Amazon and Google because even though they do much to promote literacy, they do so at the price of privacy and control of our information. I completely agree. The essay was inspired by the recent Kindle mini-scandal, where some Kindle users found bootleg copies of 1984 removed from their Kindles and their $.99 refunded. Probably no literate person has missed at least one headline in the past week or so linking Amazon to Big Brother. It seemed at least an irony too good to pass up.
As I’ve written before, I’m no fan of the digital rights management or intellectual property restrictions on the Kindle. Ebooks are great in many ways, and I read them regularly on various devices, but for library purposes Kindles are too controlled by the company to be reliable, and for personal use I still refuse to buy (perhaps "buy" would be better) a book that I can nether lend nor give nor sell to another person. Kindles have their uses, but they go against the grain of readership since the beginning of writing – if I may make so bold a statement – in that they deliberately and effectively deter the possibility of multiple readers of the same item. Besides which, it’s obvious that DRM is a finger in the dike preventing the free flow of digital information and will always be thwarted somehow.
However, despite my reservations about the Kindle and DRM in general, I can’t jump on the Big Brother bandwagon (nor am I accusing Professor Baron of doing so). The actions of the federal government seem to have more and more Big Brother characteristics these days, but it’s inappropriate to apply this description to something like Amazon.
First of all, we all have to be citizens of our state unless we opt out somehow and immigrate. However, we do not have to use Amazon or the Kindle. I am unaware of any situation in which someone was coerced into using the Kindle or giving up the history of their reading habits to Amazon. Amazon knows so much about us because we let it know so much about us. We willingly let Amazon see what we buy so that it can recommend yet more entertainment for us. This is much closer to the hedonistic and shallow Brave New World than it is to the dark dystopia 1984. Regardless of the contracts saying they’ll own a digital copy, Kindle users know how much control over the Kindle content Amazon has, and if they didn’t before they do now.
Contrast this with the music digital downloads from Amazon, freed by the music companies from the extremely restrictive DRM of the ebooks. I’m sure there’s some information embedded in the digital files saying I purchased specific songs from Amazon and that could be used against me if suddenly everything I purchased ended up on some file sharing site. Below that point, though, the files are mine, and Amazon can’t take them away from me. I can copy and back them up as many times as I like. I can give them to other people if I wanted, and they could play them without unlocking. Theoretically, I could even charge other people for these files, if I could find someone stupid enough to buy them from me. (Note to the Amazonian Big Brother: I would never do anything like this. Really.)
Despite the apparent irony of 1984 disappearing, there’s nothing Big Brothery about any of this. When it comes to Amazon, we are the victims of our own desire for easy shopping and entertainment. There are undoubtedly times when corporate malfeasance completely out of control damages our lives. Actually, that pretty much happens everyday somewhere. But this is not one of those cases. We willingly comply with Amazon, as we do with Google itself, handing over our privacy for the opportunity fondling their shiny baubles. Situations like this might erode our trust in Amazon, and thus we might be less willing to shop there, but that would still be our choice.
People who do anything on the Internet should know there is no guaranteed privacy anymore. The Internet is filled not with Big Brother, but with millions of little brothers gathering random details of our online life and using them for their own advantage. When this practice is ubiquitous, to pretend as some people have been doing that Amazon is in any way specially or specially evil is just duplicitous or naive. Or maybe it just makes a good headline.