Pulishing in the twilight of the printed word: Free Kindles -- what could go wrong?

by John MacBeath Watkins

Kevin Kelly and others are now saying that at some point, possibly this year, Amazon will be giving away free Kindle e-book readers with a subscription, along the lines of the way you can get a free phone from a cell phone company if you sign a contract for a couple years of service.

That's probably a better deal for readers than a book club, where the books you get are cheap but the selection is limited. The problem I have with it is that it centralizes control over reading matter.

In July of 2009, Amazon demonstrated that it had rather Orwellian control over what stays on your Kindle when it removed copies of 1984 that it had sold to people as an e-book from their Kindles and refunded their money. The version they had been selling was not the authorized one, and the publisher raised a stink, so they had to correct it somehow. Had they sold paper copies to people, the pirated editions would still be out there and they would have had to compensate the publisher in some way, but the Kindle gives them the power to remove a book you've purchased from your library.

That won't prevent people from going for the deal should Amazon offer free Kindles. But giving this kind of control to corporations is part of a larger trend.  When all of our e-mail and photography and our on-line social life is in the computing cloud, the authorities will no longer need to look in our libraries or desk drawers to see what we're reading, what we are writing, and with whom we associate.

Events in Tunisia and Egypt have got many people feeling good about the new technologies of communication, but keep in mind, these were not technically sophisticated regimes. The Great Firewall of China is a far more sophisticated form of control, and they've already tried to hack dissidents' G-Mail accounts. Google was sufficiently perturbed about this to withdraw from the world's most populous market.

Google takes the view that if it abused its customers' trust, they would desert it, which is the market's way of keeping them to their motto, "Don't be evil." The hacking incident in China showed that bad intentions on the part of corporations that hold our data are not necessary for our information to be compromised.

Imagine a world in which countries work as hard as China at controlling information. E-readers as vulnerable as the Kindle could easily have literature deemed subversive removed from all readers, and information in our Facebook or e-mail accounts could be analyzed to construct patterns of interaction with others. Forensic computer science is currently used against terrorists, but a government like China's has a much more inclusive notion of who poses a threat to the state.

Of course, there are ways around this.  As Ferdinand de Saussure noted in his Course in General Linguistics, the words we use to communicate meaning are arbitrary -- it doesn't matter whether our society agrees on the word eau or water to communicate the meaning as long as we know the word used refers to the same substance. Chinese dissidents have taken to using different words to refer to things, much like slang, or finding other ways to communicate.

When Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize, one microblogger listed "ten people I admire," all of whose names began with Liu. That sort of dodge can work to communicate, but it does leave electronic spoor for when the authorities catch on to the meaning being communicated, which means they could round up their defiant citizens easily.  They just can't prevent them from communicating in the first place.

When the Soviet authorities caught someone with a hand-copied samizdat, it gave them no clue of who else had seen the document.  The new technologies make it much easier to communicate, but they also make it much easier to track communication.

But what could go wrong with that?

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