The Future of Digital Book Burning: Why Remote Line-Item Retraction is Scarier than Remote Volume Deletion

Amazon did its best impersonation of Big Brother last week, when it reached into Kindles the world over and remotely deleted copies of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal FarmWitty title writers thanked their lucky stars and began stamping out stories comparing Amazon to the Ministry of Truth. Once again, the Twitterati mercilessly mocked Amazon. Double-Plus Outrage ensued.

And rightly so. Amazon’s possession of a limitless digital flamethrower is generally creepy. But I think we are ignoring the scariest part of this technology. Amazon used its power to delete entire volumes, a tactic with all the subtlety of carpet bombing. But this technology could be used like a sniper rifle, replacing small portions of an offending work and leaving the reader none the wiser.  This use is infinitely more terrifying.

Let’s engage in a little thought experiment. Pretend you are a celebrity or a politician or the head of global corporation or just a generally important entity. And let's say you’ve been offended or embarrassed or defamed in part of a written work. Maybe a paragraph describing your marital indiscretions, maybe a picture showing your polluting ways. You are thinking of suing. And you don’t want the publisher’s money, you just want the offending material to disappear.

In that scenario, do you think that you would ask for the elimination of the entire work? Of course not. That would attract even more attention to your villainy. Instead, you craft a settlement where the old version of the work is “corrected.” The publisher agrees to remotely delete the offending sentence and upload a sanitized work.

Don’t think this can’t happen. In fact, I’m willing to bet most of us would willingly open our doors to the sanitation squad: “Why buy a new edition of a book your already own? BookUpdate™ automatically syncs your version with the publisher’s latest release, correcting formatting  and factual errors while you sleep! Ignorance is strength! Freedom is Slavery!”

Terrifying. And who would notice a missing word here or there? Covertly editing content is a great way to obviate controversy.

If the publishers really wanted to do this whole truth-assassination enterprise right, they would bury a list of their corrections in the small fonts usually reserved for terms of service. “Thank you for using BookUpdate™.  In this update we corrected (impossibly small text) inaccuracies in the following pages . . . ."

Why is this so scary? Because it makes censorship costless. Remember that humiliating publicity is the only thing even mildly restraining the remote deletion craze. Amazon has previously deleted books. It was only shamed into changing when it chose to disappear a book whose main subject is the obscenity of a world that makes information (and the individual) disappear. (I can only imagine how disappointed Ray Bradbury is that Farenheit 451 was not also digitally charred.) But when a publisher can mutilate content subtly, the whole threat of Internet hordes goes down the memory hole.

Of course, as newspapers and magazines migrate to devices like the Kindle,* the ability to remotely delete with precision will become all the more valuable to the friends of dictators, plutocrats, and the leaders of IngSoc. Orwell would appreciate the perversity: a world where plaintiffs want silent, subtle retractions and books slowly burn while on our very shelves.

(Andrew Moshirnia is a rising second-year law student at Harvard Law School and a CMLP legal intern. Coincidentally, he loves his big brother.)

* Remote deletion is not limited to print materials. See the court-ordered remote deletion of digital "I Can't Believe It's Not Tivo" content.  

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