Kindle readers beware: Amazon is watching you read 1984

Christmas is coming and you’re wondering what to put on your wish list. How about an Amazon Kindle – the gizmo that enables you to download books, magazines and newspapers and read them on the move?

According to the publicity blurb, this cool device “can hold 1 500 books and be read for up to two weeks on a single charge. Its electronic-ink display looks and reads like real paper and has no glare, even in bright sunshine”. Sounds good, doesn’t it? No more worrying about whether the piles of hardbacks you want to bring to Provence/Tuscany will fit within the miserly Ryanair baggage allowance. And if you ever find yourself stuck for something to read in the train, you can wirelessly order a book from the Amazon store and be reading the opening paragraph in just over a minute. And all for just under $260 (R2 000).

You’re just about to click the “Place my order” button when a small, niggling thought pops up. Wasn’t there something about Amazon and George Orwell a few months ago? Some kind of a row about consumer rights?

Google those words and the first result is a Guardian story headlined “Amazon Kindle users surprised by ‘Big Brother’ move”. Ah, yes: now you remember. The report reads: “Owners of Amazon’s Kindle electronic book reader have received a nasty surprise, after discovering that copies of books by George Orwell had been deleted from their gadgets without their knowledge. The books – downloaded from by American Kindle users – were remotely deleted after what the US company now says was a rights issue regarding the publisher,” It seems that Amazon refunded the cost of the books, but told affected customers they could no longer read the books and that the titles were no longer available.

Here’s the translation: you go to Waterstone’s, buy a copy of Orwell’s 1984 and take it home. Two days later you get up and find that agents of Waterstone’s have entered the house during the night and removed the offending volume. They’ve left a terse note explaining what they’ve done and enclosing a credit note for the cost of the book. Enraged, you phone the manager of Waterstone’s, who explains that everything is in accordance with the service agreement you accepted when you bought the book.

You don’t have to be a lawyer to know that this would not be tolerated in the real world of physical objects.Yet it’s commonplace — indeed universal — in the world of information goods. And what makes it possible is the “End User Licence Agreement” (EULA) that most of us click to accept when we first use hardware, software or online services.

The Kindle EULA is a good example. Section 3, which deals with “Digital Content” (such as downloaded books), says that “Unless specifically indicated otherwise, you may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense or otherwise assign any rights to the Digital Content or any portion of it to any third party, and you may not remove any proprietary notices or labels on the Digital Content.” In other words, you are forbidden to lend or sell the book you’ve just “bought”. In real-world terms, you can’t lend your copy of 1984 to a friend or donate it to the school jumble sale.

Under the subsection on “Use of Digital Content’, the Kindle EULA says: “Amazon grants you the non-exclusive right to keep a permanent copy of the applicable Digital Content and to view, use, and display such Digital Content an unlimited number of times, solely on the Device or as authorised by Amazon as part of the Service and solely for your personal, non-commercial use.”

Translation: you can’t back up your electronic books on to any other device – which means that if your Kindle packs up, or if Amazon moves on to another technical standard, you’re screwed: your entire digital library has effectively been vaporised. Then you look round your house and note the number of electronic devices that no longer work.

I could go on, but you get the point. Verily, technology giveth, but also it taketh away. And sometimes we don’t realise until it’s too late. Caveat emptor. –

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