Your Digital Stuff May Not Be Yours

25 March 2018

On a Friday in 2009, some people discovered that copies of Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm had mysteriously vanished from their Amazon Kindle e-readers. While this wasn’t the only case of mysteriously vanishing books (copies of Harry Potter and Ayn Rand novels vanished at other times), it was interesting enough to hit the news because 1984 was involved. The disappearing books was not, of course, accidental. Amazon had intentionally taken down the books and deleted downloaded copies from Kindles due to copyright disputes. It sparked an interesting discussion about ownership of digital goods; depending on how you’ve purchased them, maybe you don’t fully own them.

Amazon acknowledged that perhaps its choice to delete the books from the devices of customers who had bought them was a bad one and promised it would change its policies. But, in 2012 Amazon reignited the discussion by deleting the Amazon account of a Norwegian IT consultant and clearing all the books from her Kindle. Though on the much smaller scale of just one Kindle, Amazon again was subject to indignation from its e-reader customers.

While the idea that a company you’ve bought digital things from could take those things you’ve paid for away isn’t pleasant, companies are allowed to do that by the terms of service you agree to when you make an account. Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple, and other services have similar agreements. None of their agreements state that you actually own any of the digital content you buy; you’re not buying the content, you’re paying for access that the company can revoke. In fact, for many e-books, even if you take the e-book file off the device you bought it on, it may be difficult to impossible to access it anywhere else because it’s protected by something known as DRM (short for, depending on who you ask, “Digital Rights Management” or “Digital Restrictions Management”).

It’s fitting that the discussion of digital ownership ended up in the mainstream because of 1984 and books. However, the same issue extends to other digital content. Google has the ability to remotely disable and delete apps from Android phones, and periodically does when it discovers apps that contain malware. Apple has the same ability for its iPhones and iPads. Although removing malicious apps is a benevolent use of the ability, the ability is there nonetheless.

The ability to remotely take away access to certain things hasn’t been used maliciously or for general censorship as far as we’re aware. But, it raises some concerns, in addition to digital ownership rights, now that net neutrality and the responsibilities of online services being neutral are growing problems. We recently learned that Facebook, in addition to its various other recent controversies, quietly took down case studies about its success in getting various politicians elected. To be fair, Facebook’s revenue is based mostly off ad revenue and it’s not uncommon for politicians and political groups to buy online ads.

While we haven’t and likely won’t see something on the scale of book banning in Orwell’s 1984, books are still banned (you can see a list of books banned in 2016 in the U.S. here). Banning a book, for any reason, electronically and removing copies from devices people own is the only way that a book ban can actually be enforced; physical books can’t be recalled in the same way and places such as libraries can refuse to take a book out of circulation. It sometimes gets worse than content: courts have tried to force companies like TiVo to remotely disable devices installed in people’s homes and AOL to uninstall software from people’s computers with “updates” because of patent infringements.

What makes this scarier is that companies have the ability to censor content for almost any reason. Amazon was known to selectively ban books for vague reasons, such as certain pornographic content. Amazon has caved to public outcry on certain banned content, but there’s no guarantee they would for something more important, if Amazon felt it was against their values. It’s worrisome when we know that foreign actors are working to interfere with elections, potentially with the help of online services (intentionally or not). Though anyone can publish an e-book, it’s up to the companies making it available whether it gets a wide platform rather than a download page on an obscure site. Worse still, is that if a court can order TiVo to disable almost 200,000 devices installed in homes, a court might also be able to order the banning of certain content and companies like Amazon have the technical ability to comply.

Care about an open and neutral Internet? Check out my book, Please Upgrade for Access, at book.thenaterhood.com.

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