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Amazon’s shady DRM account delete policy: Why I will always buy print books

Oct 24, 2012

A few days ago, technology writer Martin Bekkelund wrote about how his friend’s Amazon account was deleted without explanation, with all the downloaded books (private property, mind you) vanishing with it. This is the trouble with property that exists in the ether—it can ultimately be deleted by some unaccountable, faceless corporate bureaucracy like Amazon. Since one can’t go down to the local Amazon office and talk to a manager—online interactions are impersonal and based on absolutely zero trust—it engenders a “so what?” attitude from customer service.

I reject the idea that business is some beautiful model of efficiency, especially corporate businesses. Has anyone ever dealt with Verizon, Time-Warner, Bank of America, to name but a few? It’s a Gilliamesque bureaucratic nightmare where no one is accountable and nearly everything is automated. It is enough to trigger a psychotic break.

Amazon, with its shady book delete policy under DRM (Digital Rights Management), takes advantage of this impersonal, distant and faceless corporate bureaucratic method. With language like “Amazon.co.uk and its affiliates reserve the right to refuse service, terminate accounts, remove or edit content, or cancel orders at their sole discretion,” as detailed by Bekkelund in his blog post, it is a particularly troubling power. Corporations have sought the means by which to tell customers what we can and can’t do with the media and hardware we purchase with our money.

I won’t reprint the back and forth between Bekkelund’s friend and the Amazon customer service executive, but needless to say it is absurd and astonishing in the extreme. The Amazon employee, Michael Murphy, refuses to identify a blocked account that Bekkelund’s friend is said to be “linked to.” He refuses to say what policy was supposedly violated. And he refuses to tell his customer why the account is even linked to the blocked account in the first place.

That such a bureaucratic mess could occur is not particularly surprising. Indeed, it’s not even the most troubling issue here, as I see it. What should be of prime concern for everyone is that we stupidly entrust our purchased property in the form of ethereal, non-physical content to corporations in the first place. That we’ve given such power to the seller when it comes to the media we’d like to own.

 Amazons shady DRM account delete policy: Why I will always buy print books

Three or four years ago, when this whole e-book movement started to unfold, I was resistant. Still am, though I am no Luddite. Around that time a friend asked me—since I was a former bookseller, collector of books, and avid reader of printed fiction and non-fiction—what I thought of e-book publishing. Without addressing Amazon at the time, I took a slightly conspiratorial outlook. I said something to the effect of, The best thing that could possibly happen for those looking to control populations would be e-books. You don’t own a physical copy. If the energy infrastructure of nations were to collapse, there would be no e-books. People with actual physical libraries would be the only thing standing between power and ignorance. Hyperbolic? Perhaps. But consider that we don’t know if we can power this electrified world for thousands of years, and the skeptical perspective seems pretty sensible.

Bekkelund, his friend and a host of people on the internet share an understandable sense of frustration and astonishment at Amazon for the account and media deletion under DRM policy. That, to my mind, is the least of our worries. In this increasingly digitized world, where products we would like to own in a material way are increasingly being uploaded to the ether, the real problem is having our private property out in the ether at all. That is precisely where corporations want it: they want to be able to control it at their whim, private property be damned, to say nothing of getting us to yield up the personal information we so willingly do with our Facebook and Google accounts.

And if one has to buy things over and over again because of some corporate bureaucratic fuck-up, or because one has been found to be in violation of policy, so what—that is what business wants. It is not enough for a customer to buy once; they must come back. But that is the capitalist free market economy in a nutshell, right? If people don’t keep buying replacements then the whole fuckin’ illusion breaks down.

So go ahead and keep your property in some corporation’s cloud. Me? I will keep buying print books and going to the public library wherever I live. In those physical, material personal and public libraries lies power. And they can never take it away from me. Well, unless the GOP manages to defund libraries.

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