After listening to a story on All Things Considered about Amazon pulling copies of George Orwell's 1984 off of its Kindles this past week, I pondered what this might mean for ownership of digital electronic books and further down the line how this would affect personal freedoms and censorship.
For those of you who may not be familiar with the story, last week Amazon pulled copies of 1984 off of users' Kindles without warning. Kindles are networked, and connect with Amazon's servers on a regular basis. For this reason, Amazon was easily able to access users Kindles to remove the files.
Along with the irony of the whole ordeal (Big Brother is watching!) comes the fact that you can read the whole book for free on George Orwell's official site.
As an educator, and a lover of formerly banned books, I hope that we learn from this and reflect on the implications it has for educators, students and personal freedom in general. I have seen many discussions on Twitter and in the blogosphere about using Kindles and other such electronic reading devices in the classroom as an alternative to textbooks. Many in the education field believe that using these devices is not only environmentally friendly, but also allows for easy updates as publishers release new editions or districts change textbooks.
I agree that the use of paper textbooks costs a lot of money and can be very wasteful. In Philadelphia we get a new set of curriculum materials with every new administration. This means that not only are the millions of dollars spent on buying textbooks wasted, but closets are filled with unused books. My school is 101 years old, and it is easy to find textbooks lying around with publication dates that are older than I am. You can also find textbooks or guided reading books published within the last few years that sit unused or forgotten because they are no longer aligned with the District's Core Curriculum.
For an idea of how much it costs to furnish a classroom with textbooks:
While the use of electronic readers will save trees and possibly save districts money if they can 'upgrade' to a new version of a text without having to repurchase the edition, I still don't see how a Kindle is any better than a Netbook computer. This, however, is a whole other conversation in itself!
Ownership & DRM
Most eBooks require some kind of electronic reader or special software to open the file, and many are protected by Digital Rights Management to protect the copyright of the books/publications. For this reason, there has been much discussion about ownership of eBooks. If you can't always (legally) download the file to your computer/PDA/Kindle, etc... and share it with your friends or open it on multiple computers, do you really own it?
Which brings us back to censorship.
If Amazon can take a book off of its customers' Kindles so easily, what will the future of literature and publishing look like? As we move more toward cloud computing, with much if not most of our files and information stored online, should we worry about "Big Brother?" Are we jeopardizing our personal freedom and privacy by allowing big companies to host our important files as well as things we have purchased?
While I would like to believe that we are way past the days of banned books, the world will never rid itself of those who feel that certain topics, themes and words are not appropriate for our children. Should all of the textbooks and required reading texts in a school be accessed as eBooks, then districts can easily remove the book from use without having to collect books from classrooms and without discussing it with anyone first.
We should use this event as a starting point for the discussion of the protection of our personal freedom and privacy. Hopefully this will also motivate consumers to ask companies like Amazon to add a clause to their Conditions of Use about ownership of files that have been downloaded from the site.
While Amazon was legally allowed to pull the content according to its policies under "Your Account," that does not mean that it made the right decision. This rash move did, however, open our eyes to the reality that there is no clause for ownership of downloaded files with DRM. As a result of consumer complaints, Apple began to offer DRM free files (for a slightly higher price) to its customers. Hopefully consumers will do the same with Amazon and its sellers.