/ Cory Doctorow / 6 am Mon, Oct 22 2012
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  • Kindle user claims Amazon deleted whole library without explanation

    Kindle user claims Amazon deleted whole library without explanation

    When your Kindle is wiped by Amazon without explanation, refund, or appeal, it's time to wake up and realize the truth: ebook readers treat you as a tenant-farmer of your books, not an owner. You have no rights, only a license-agreement that runs to thousands of words, and that you'll never fully satisfy.

    According to Martin Bekkelund, a Norwegian Amazon customer identified only as Linn had her Kindle access revoked without warning or explanation. Her account was closed, and her Kindle was remotely wiped. Bekkelund has posted a string of emails that he says were sent to Linn by the company. They are a sort of Kafkaesque dumbshow of bureaucratic non-answering, culminating in the customer service version of "Die in a fire," to whit, "We wish you luck in locating a retailer better able to meet your needs and will not be able to offer any additional insight or action on these matters," a comment signed by "Michael Murphy, Executive Customer Relations, Amazon.co.uk."

    Update: Simon Phipp sez, "Kindlegate update: Linn says her account was mysteriously re-activated after my article published."

    Pity that there isn't any ground between "Go to hell" and "Sorry, we made a mistake," such as, perhaps, "Huh, before we take away all the books you've given us money for, I guess we'd better look into this, and here's what we think you did, can you help us understand it?"

    As previously advised, your Amazon.co.uk account has been closed, as it has come to our attention that this account is related to a previously blocked account. While we are unable to provide detailed information on how we link related accounts, please know that we have reviewed your account on the basis of the information provided and regret to inform you that it will not be reopened.

    Please understand that the closure of an account is a permanent action. Any subsequent accounts that are opened will be closed as well. Thank you for your understanding with our decision.

    I appreciate this is not the outcome you hoped for and apologise for any disappointment this may cause.

    Update:: Simon Phipps talked to Linn and got her story:

    Linn lives in Norway, where Amazon does not operate (Amazon.no redirects to the Amazon Europe page). She bought a Kindle in the UK, liked it and read a number of books on it. She then gave that Kindle to her mother, and bought a used Kindle on a Danish classifieds site to which she transferred her account. She has been happily reading on it for some time, purchasing her books with a Norwegian address and credit card. She told me she'd read 30 or 40 books on it.

    Sadly, the device developed a fault (actually a second time, it was also replaced in 2011 for the same reason) and started to display black lines on the screen (something I've heard from other friends as it happens). She called Amazon customer service, and they agreed to replace it if she returned it, although they insisted on shipping the replacement to a UK address rather to her in Norway.

    Then the e-mails that her friend Martin re-posted arrived. Linn has had no explanation from Amazon about what they think she has done wrong. All the e-mails simply refer to "another account which has been previously closed for abuse of our policies", in a tone reminiscent of a patronising official saying "you know what you did wrong so I'm not going to tell you". The e-mails also look as if they are simply a cut-and-paste from some procedure manual, because others have received exactly the same text (with just as little warning, explanation or recourse).

    Back in 2009, when Amazon settled the lawsuit over its remote deletion of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (you really can't make this stuff up), it promised that it would not perform any further deletions unless ordered to do so by a court. I repeatedly asked Amazon whether DRM-free ebooks, or files that users load onto their Kindles themselves, could be remotely deleted. I never received a response of any kind.

    My guess is that Amazon has the capability to wipe any file from any Kindle, and likely also has the ability to read any file on any Kindle. I'd further speculate that the policy violation that Linn stands accused of is using a friend's UK address to buy Amazon UK English Kindle books from Norway. This is a symptom of Amazon's -- and every single other ebook retailer's -- hopelessness at managing "open territory" for ebooks.

    "Open territory" is a publishing term describing places where no publisher holds exclusive retail rights. In English-language book-contracts, it's almost always the case that countries where English isn't the native or official language are "open territory," meaning that if a writer sells her English language rights in Canada and the US to Macmillan, and her UK/Australia/NZ/South African rights to Penguin, both Penguin and Macmillan are legally allowed to sell competing English print and electronic editions in Norway, Rwanda, India, China, and Russia.

    However, the universal approach taken by ebook retailers to "open territory" is to pretend that it doesn't exist. If no publisher is registered as the exclusive provider of an edition in a given country, the ebook retailers just refuse to sell to people in those countries. I've spoken to e-rights people in the major publishing houses, and they hate this, because a) it just drives piracy; and b) it represents lost sales. But there's no shifting the etailers, apparently.

    If my conjecture about Linn's offense is correct, then she has not violated copyright, nor has she done anything that would upset a publisher. She's merely violated the thousands of words of impossible fine-print that comes with your Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and iPad, as have all of us. This fine print will always have a clause that says you are a mere tenant farmer of your books, and not their owner, and your right to carry around your "purchases" (which are really conditional licenses, despite misleading buttons labelled with words like "Buy this with one click" -- I suppose "Conditionally license this with one click" is deemed too cumbersome for a button) can be revoked without notice or explanation (or, notably, refund) at any time.

    It's likely that the EU's open market directives prohibit any kind of discrimination of sales based on national borders within the EU (though Norway isn't technically in the EU). However, the EUCD's strict prohibition on DRM circumvention (which Norway both voluntarily adopted and exceeded) means that purchasers of ebooks and ereaders can't take any steps to enforce their legal rights, nor can any business or nonprofit assist them in these matters.

    I was a bookseller for many years. I have no idea whether everything that my customers did with their books was legal. It's likely that some of them photocopied their books and passed them around. Embarrassingly enough, I once sold a small stack of rather excellent novels to a guy who bought them with a counterfeit bill. Despite all this, I -- as a bookseller -- was never, ever expected to repossess those books. I was not expected to police my customers' use of those books. I did not have -- nor did I want -- the facility to know what else my customers shelved on their bookshelves next to the books I sold them.

    Reading without surveillance, publishing without after-the-fact censorship, owning books without having to account for your ongoing use of them: these are rights that are older than copyright. They predate publishing. They are fundamentals that every bookseller, every publisher, every distributor, every reader, should desire. They are foundational to a free press and to a free society. If you sell an ebook reader is designed to allow Kafkaesque repossessions, you are a fool if you expect anything but Kafkaesque repossessions in their future. We've been fighting over book-bans since the time of Martin Luther and before. There is no excuse for being surprised when your attractive nuisance attracts nuisances.

    It's true that the ability to revoke files over the air is a boon to people whose devices are stolen or lost. Much of that benefit can be realized by designing devices that encrypt their storage (to a user password) by default (though we know about the weaknesses of passwords, of course). It's also conceivable to have an over-the-air deletion system that requires a sign-in from the device owner/user at a Web-browser, and that isn't available to the manufacturer alone. Both of these are more cumbersome than simply reporting your device stolen and knowing that the next time it's connected to the Internet, it will delete itself.

    But as we learned when Mat Honan's phone, laptop, and backups were remotely wiped by a hacker, having a manufacturer-controlled remote wipe facility means that your data is only as safe as the most careless front-line telephone-bank service rep at the manufacturer, which is to say, not very.

    If it's a choice between paving the way for tyranny and risking the loss of your digital life at the press of a button by some deceived customer service rep, and having to remember a password, I think the password is the way to go. The former works better, but the latter fails better.

    A note to anyone from Amazon PR contemplating sending me a comment regarding this: I expect that any comment from Amazon regarding this story will disclose whether and when Amazon can delete files (including files loaded by users) from Kindles, and whether DRM-free files can still be deleted. Also: as a policy, I do not quote anonymous spokespeople for firms unless they are telling me something that could cost them their jobs.

    Update: Here's how Ashleigh from Kobo explained their Open Territory workings:

    I was happy to see an article on the open territory issue - as it's not often discussed and I think it's an important issue for publishers today. But, as one of these e-Retailers you mention, I object to your statement below:

    "This is a symptom of Amazon's -- and every single other ebook retailer's -- hopelessness at managing "open territory" for ebooks."

    I can't speak for our competitors, but I can speak to how books are managed at Kobo. Our contracts state that we will faithfully represent the rights declaration for each title. We have to respect where we've been told any given books have the right to sell, and we treat these statements as gospel.

    All the details about a book are communicated in our industry's xml standard, ONIX Each book's metadata contains an explicit statement on what territories we are allowed to sell in as a retailer of this title. As a global retailer, we encourage all publishers to be complete in these details and to provide us with maximum rights. In fact, I had hundreds of conversations about this a few weeks ago during the Frankfurt Book Fair. But, many publishers are very conservative about communicating rights in territories they are not actively engaged with. Also, many of the agency publishers insist on setting the prices themselves, and an unfortunate side effect to that is that the territories they haven't made the effort to price in the local currency remain unavailable.

    However, it looks like my own publisher, Tor, are pretty good on this. She adds,

    Looking at one title (For the Win) as an example, it looks like your publisher is doing a great job. ISO country codes below - but it looks like our friend in Norway who lost their account would have no problems buying your book on Kobo.

    US CA AE AF AL AM AN AO AQ AR AS AT AW AX AZ BA BE BF BG BH BI BJ BO BR BT BV BY CD CF CG CH CI CK CL CN CO CR CU CV CX CZ DE DJ DK DO DZ EC EE EG EH ER ES ET FI FM FO FR GA GE GF GI GL GN GP GQ GR GS GT GU GW HK HM HN HR HT HU ID IL IO IR IS IT JO JP KG KH KM KP KR KZ LA LB LI LR LT LU LV LY MA MC MD ME MG MH MK ML MN MO MP MQ MR MT MV MX MY MZ NC NE NG NI NL NO NP NU NZ OM PA PE PF PH PL PM PR PS PT PW PY QA RE RO RS RU RW SA SD SE SG SI SJ SK SL SM SN SO SR ST SV SY TD TF TG TH TJ TL TM TN TR TW UA UM UY UZ VA VE VI VN WF YE YT ZA

    This suggests that all the other ebook retailers who won't sell you my books (and, likely, other Tor titles) are doing so because they lack the technical chops to parse out the metadata supplied by Tor.

    Outlawed by Amazon DRM

    Outlawed by Amazon DRM (Google cache)

    (Thanks to Eirik and all the others who sent this in)

    (Image: DRM PNG 1 900, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from listentomyvoice's photostream)

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