Amazon and the memory hole

This morning’s Observer column.

Up to now, the debate about eBooks has been dominated by technical issues: ergonomics, portability, storage capacity, the readability of display screens, the quality of the user interface and so on. These are important matters, but ignore the biggest issue of all, namely the ways in which the technology enables content owners to assert a level of control over the reader that would be deemed unconscionable – and unacceptable – in the world of print.

Our societies have spent 400 years developing legal traditions which strike a reasonable balance between the needs of authors and publishers on the one hand and those of users on the other.

Compromises like the doctrine of ‘fair use’ are examples of that balancing act. One of the reasons the publishing industry is salivating over the potential of electronic texts is that they could radically tilt the balance in favour of content-owners in a single decade. We’re sleepwalking into a nightmare of perfect remote control. If nothing else, the tale of Amazon, Orwell and the memory hole ought to serve as a wake-up call.

Update: Bobbie Johnson had a good piece about this in the Technology section of Thursday’s Guardian and the following day reported the reaction of Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s boss, to the debacle. Bezos wrote:

“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.”