Sunday, July 19, 2009

Long Live Big Brother!

1984 becomes the first unbook, but probably won't be the last ...

What a coincidence -- no sooner was the digital ink dry on my recent blog about the 25th anniversary of 1984 than Orwell's notorious novel made news again by disappearing from Amazon's Kindle readers everywhere. This must mean it's time to reflect once more about the issue of copyright and rights management in the digital era.

Apparently Amazon was notified by the legitimate copyright owners that their digital editions of 1984 and also Animal Farm had been obtained from an illegitimate third party source, so they were obliged to stop distributing them. What makes the story bizarre, and should put consumers on alert, is that Amazon went way beyond what was required of them and decided to use their "Whispernet" back door into all Kindles everywhere to recall (i.e., delete) all the copies that had been downloaded previously.

Customers received refunds, but were not even told that their books were now vanished as if they had never been. They had become "unbooks."

Now, as everyone should remember, Winston Smith, the diligent worker bee of Orwell's imaginary world, toiled away at his desk in the Ministry of Truth carefully excising past references to news that had been revised and people who had been done away with: "unpersons." He did this by pasting brown paper over their pictures in old newspapers, and by redacting the text until it resembled a passage of testimony on the Iran-Contra affair. The operative government slogan was: Who controls the present, controls the past. Who controls the past, controls the future.

But just when we thought we were safe because things have worked out differently, along comes this new digital technique capable of instantly removing all references to any digital content. The battle is not lost yet, because regardless of Amazon's deletions there are still lots of hard copies of Orwell out in the world, and perhaps some legitimate digital copies as well -- maybe even a fugitive one living on a Kindle somewhere, saved only because it is in some remote area of the planet where Whispernet cannot reach. But the example shows what is possible and should give us cause for concern.

With the immanent demise of the print editions of all newspapers, we will soon get used to the idea that our sole source for information is the digital archives of the Internet. And alas, the memory of online sources is brief and subject to loss and revision. Under a regime with the will to do so (let's pick China as an example), the nerve-nexuses of the Internet can be constricted, spying software can be installed on your computer by law, and what you can and cannot access can become very much a matter of centralized control.

And never mind deleting books or articles -- how about just revising them, perhaps while they are still being read? Remember that election last year where our editor lambasted the other party's candidate? Well, as you can see, you are mistaken, because he was clearly backing the winner from the start. Remember the famous photo of the young man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square? Well, your memory must be playing tricks on you, because you can search all day and you will never again find a copy of that photo.

Our defense against this potential tyranny is still vigilance, as always. The battle of information flow between the top-down central authority model and the bottom-up grass roots model gives hope that there is at least an alternative. But we also need to start choosing our battles while we can still win them. Digital Rights Management, or DRM, is still a winnable debate.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act has stripped us of some basic rights that we used to take for granted when we bought a book or record. We need to make up our minds to resist. We can do it economically, by boycotting publishers and distributors who engage in practices we don't approve of, or politically, by demanding legislative change, or in courts, where organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation are standing up on our behalf. (Check out their take on this issue here.)

One commentator on the irony of this fate befalling 1984 observed that it might have been even more ironic if it had happened to Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, about a society that had burned all its books. But there is probably small chance of that happening as long as the publishers need to have something to sell us. Rights management is really about having a way to sell us the same thing multiple times, the way we are expected to pay every time we watch a movie.

I'm much more concerned about the possibility that the next time I read it there will be something funny about the ending of 1984. Winston Smith, bright and shiny after graduating from the rehab program in the basement of The Ministry of Love, joins the Anti-Sex league with his pal Julia. They move into a plush new apartment suitable for Inner Party members and live happily ever after. Winston can't imagine what ever got into him to question things the way he did. But that's all in the past now, where it can be safely ... revised.

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