Write and wrong: Amazon's Orwellian nightmare

Netizens were none too pleased when Amazon 'unsold' copies of 1984. But it seems Amazon finally got the message

The dust is finally beginning to settle after the Kindle Kerfuffle, when Amazon got caught with its Orwellian fingers in the Memory Hole. For those who weren't paying attention, the World's Largest Store unilaterally deleted two books from users' Kindles last week -- George Orwell's "Animal Farm" and "1984" -- only to find itself at the center of a maelstrom of bad PR ("Careful what you read, Big Bezos is watching.")

One thing the residents of Cringeville seem to agree on: Though Amazon has screwed up many times over the last 15 years, this was the worst by far. Aside from sparking a spirited discussion in the comments field, my post also inspired several e-mails, some of them so incendiary I needed oven mitts to open them.

[ Find out what opened up this can of worms: "Careful what you read, Big Bezos is watching." | Stay up to date on Robert X. Cringely's musings and observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

For example, S. B. writes:

As an attorney of some 36 years, it deeply offends me that Amazon feels entirely comfortable with breaking innumerable State and Federal computer privacy and security laws with impunity in order to correct some administrative foible on their part...  Truly we are living in a re-run of the era of the robber barons. Amazon deserves to be sued within an inch of its life by a class consisting of everyone who woke up today to discover that their property had been stolen and their privacy abrogated from within the murky mists of the ether.

As part of my screed, I called for the creation of a customer bill of rights. Cringester R. R. (who seems to speak largely in acronyms), says he and others have been trying to get something like this going for a long time.

I completely agree with your DRM article .... where Amazon was able to reclaim those books. We’ve been fighting this with UCITA (Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act) for years. I’m on the BOD for the AFFECT (Americans For Fair Electronic Commerce Transactions) and represent SIM (Society for Information Management) on that board... If you come up with a good way, we’d certainly like to hear your approach.

Amazon screwed the pooch a half-dozen ways when it deleted those books from customers' Kindles, but its biggest mistake was not admitting it had done anything wrong. That just got rectified. Jeffrey P. Bezos himself logged onto the discussion on Amazon's user forums and posted the following mea culpa:

This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle. Our "solution" to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we've received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission.

How about a nice merlot to wash down that crow, Mr. CEO? Still, kudos to Bezos for finally sucking it up and doing the right thing.

How should Amazon have reacted when it learned people had purchased books that technically should not have been available to them? How about sending an e-mail to the users affected, asking them to voluntarily delete the books, and offering not only a refund but some kind of make-good (like a free e-book, or $10 off their next purchase)? After all, it was Amazon who screwed up, not its customers. And if the people decided to keep their 99-cent books? Well, not much harm done there, ultimately. I'm sure George Orwell's descendents would have survived the loss of income.

Now Amazon needs to clearly define how its going to handle situations like that in the future -- not with some vague promise that "we won't make that mistake again," but something that draws a line where they believe customers' rights to own the stuff they bought actually ends, and what Amazon will or won't do as a result.

You'd think folks as smart as those at Amazon -- which defined the state of the art in e-commerce and continues to kick everyone else's heinies at it -- would realize this. But it's not a lack of intelligence that's the problem; it's a surplus of hubris. Too bad it took something this egregious for Amazon to learn some humility.

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What's the best way to handle digital rights problems? Post your thoughts below or e-mail them to me: cringe@infoworld.com. I might even end up quoting you.

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