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Self-destructing ebooks reveal a dark digital truth

Big tech

Self-destructing ebooks reveal a dark digital truth

Digital goods may prove to be more ephemeral than customers expect

A scene from Fahrenheit 451. In the information age, consumers are often renters with limited control of digital products © Alamy

A decade ago, in suitably ironic fashion, Amazon reached into customers’ electronic shelves and deleted copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four which it had sold to them. Now another Big Tech firm is gearing up for a spate of digital text destruction. When Microsoft closes its ebook store later this month, every novel, biography, self-help guide and history book it sold will cease to work.

These stories of vanishing books reveal the unpleasant reality behind the convenience of online purchases. In the information age, consumers are often renters with limited control of digital products, even if these have apparently been “sold” to them. The case of the Microsoft store also demonstrates how systems for protecting copyright can penalise customers who have made legal purchases.

Amazon’s decision stemmed from the publisher not having copyright for George Orwell’s dystopian classic. Rather than informing customers of the problem, the e-commerce giant simply deleted the offending books and sent refunds without a warning. Microsoft has learnt from the resulting backlash, warning its readers so that they could finish their books before they are erased.

Microsoft is offering full refunds, plus $25 for users who have annotated their copies. Reimbursements cannot remove the feeling that retailers have been duplicitous in branding. They may point to small print showing they have loaned out books, but in many cases they have deliberately advertised them as being “sold” to users. Customers would be scandalised if employees of a bricks-and-mortar store pulled physical books from their nightstand on similar grounds.

The Microsoft case also shows how anti-piracy measures are not ready to deal with the closure of services. Digital Rights Management stops the copying of electronic content such as books, and music, and checks if they have been legally purchased. Microsoft’s decision to shut down its ebook DRM servers means that verification cannot take place. While there are ways to circumvent DRM, they remain illegal for most purposes in the US and EU. Given the speed at which tech companies and services rise and fall, the risk of DRM-induced disappearances will only grow.

A future in which retailers move to selling customers online products rather than in effect leasing them out — or one in which publishers drop DRM measures — is unlikely. Yet there are steps which can be taken to avoid repeating the errors of Microsoft and Amazon. Customers should be clearly presented with the truth about their ownership of products. Amazon, Microsoft and Apple all offer explicit digital rentals alongside “purchases”. They should clarify that the difference between those two categories is far smaller than their names might suggest. It is not enough to hide that fact in the small print, so that it is discovered only when content is yanked away.

Anti-privacy systems should also be future-proofed. Tech services and products are routinely killed off if they fail to meet expectations. Sellers should ensure that customers can migrate products they have paid for in those cases. To fail to do so will simply incentivise more illegal downloads.

Unlike the great book-burners of history and fiction, Microsoft and Amazon’s motives have been apolitical. Yet their ability to destroy texts with ease and without consent remains slightly terrifying. The firefighters of Fahrenheit 451 and censors of Nineteen Eighty-Four look like rank amateurs in comparison. The revival of the physical bookshop and its paper-based products is no bad thing in that light. A book in hand could well be worth two on an ereader.

Letter in response to this article:

Physical books, too, come at a hidden price / From Heikki Andrell, Helsinki, Finland

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