A number of folks whom I admire greatly have signed a petition aimed at Amazon’s control-freakish policies with its Kindle e-book reader. The most notable recent example of what’s wrong with the Kindle is the remote-deleting of books that people had bought (with a refund).
The irony in Amazon’s action, since the deletions included George Orwell’s 1984, contributed to the mini-firestorm that erupted. In any case, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, publicly apologized. That was a smart and welcome move, but his letter to the Amazon community carefully didn’t promise not to do it again. This disappoints me as an author, Kindle owner and owner of a small amount of Amazon stock. (And I’m glad to see that a student is standing up in court against what happened to his own note-taking in the electronic edition.)
Although I agree with almost everything the petition says, I declined to sign. My reason was the use of the word “demand” — a word that, as I said to a foundation staff member, feels wrong in every way.
It strikes me as hollow to demand anything. Just as the incessant use of the word “must” in newspapers editorials — as in “President Obama must do this or that” — betrays editorial writers’ fundamental impotence in such matters, demanding that people do this or that seems so unlikely to lead to action that it’s nearly pointless.
I prefer to urge, and try to persuade. So here’s the petition language (which I proposed but which was not adopted) that I’d have gladly signed:
Our way of life based on the free exchange of ideas, in which books have and will continue to hold a central role. Devices like the Kindle are setting the standard for how people interact with books, but the use of software to control, monitor, or eliminate users’ books from afar constitutes a clear threat to the free exchange of ideas.
That is one reason why we — readers, authors, publishers and librarians — strongly urge that Amazon remove from the Kindle device the ability to control or access the books its users have purchased.
Amazon’s assurances that it won’t abuse this power are insufficient. Having this power is the problem. Until the company gives up this capability, the company will be tempted to use it — or may be forced to use it, by narrow private interests or by governments. Whatever Amazon’s motives for maintaining this control may be, they are not nearly as important as the public’s freedom to read books without interference or supervision.
Meanwhile, we are actively seeking alternatives to the Kindle. We will support — with our dollars, and the common sense that when we buy something we should own it — the companies that understand, and provide, true freedom of speech in the marketplace of ideas.
In the end I think Amazon will come around on this, but I also believe the people there will be unnecessarily put off by your petition, which may make it counterproductive to all of our goals.