E-books: the leg­erde­main of to­mor­row?

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words -

The new emerg­ing world of e-books has a po­ten­tial dark side to which few are pay­ing at­ten­tion. E- books make cen­sor­ship and other re­stric­tions on the free­dom to read pos­si­bly eas­ier.

In 2009, Justin Gawron­ski, then a Michi­gan teenager, was one of many Kin­dle read­ers who learned what you think is yours isn’t when it comes to dig­i­tal texts. One day while read­ing George Or­well’s Nine­teen Eighty-Four for school, he couldn’t lo­cate his copy on his Kin­dle. It was miss­ing. Un­be­knownst to him, Ama­zon, which had sold him the book, didn’t have the rights to the edi­tion or to the edi­tion of Or­well’s An­i­mal Farm it was sell­ing. So tech­ni­cians at the world’s largest book­seller con­fig­ured their com­put­ers to solve the prob­lem. Mov­ing like thieves un­der the cover of dark­ness, lines of cod­ing went down the in­ter­net that de­stroyed the text of the books when read­ers turned on their Kin­dles. Re­funds were is­sued.

“I cer­tainly never ex­pected that some­thing I bought and thought I owned could be taken away from me so eas­ily,” Gawron­ski told a re­porter from Bri­tain’s Guardian. That’s be­cause the teenager made a mis­taken as­sump­tion that only the for­mat is dif­fer­ent when deal­ing with e-books. How­ever, e-books are fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent from the pa­per books one picks up in a store in that their read­ers don’t own most e-books but are in­stead granted a li­cense to use them. You may tear apart and re­ar­range a tra­di­tional printed book, you may sell it or give it to another, you may even pho­to­copy large por­tions of it as long as you don’t re­sell the copies. More im­por­tant, once in your hands, the pub­lisher and oth­ers do not have any right to tam­per with your copy.

The Ama­zon agree­ment, which ev­ery­one who uses Kin­dle has to ap­prove in or­der to ob­tain books, is a li­cens­ing con­tract with terms that con­sumers hardly do more than glance at. James J. O’Don­nell, a Ge­orge­town Univer­sity pro­fes­sor, learned about this fine print trav­el­ing over­seas. When he landed in Sin­ga­pore, he up­dated his Google Play app on his iPad. The soft­ware then pro­ceeded to re­move all the e-books on his iPad and blocked him from down­load­ing them again be­cause it de­ter­mined he was in a na­tion out­side Google’s li­cens­ing agree­ments. In short, he would have to fly home to re­trieve his e-books.

While what was done to the high-school stu­dent and the univer­sity pro­fes­sor might be con­sid­ered a bad mo­ment in cus­tomer ser­vice, the e-book providers were well within their rights. Google Play’s terms of ser­vice, as lengthy and as com­pli­cated as those of Ama­zon, Kobo, or Nook, in­clude the right of the provider to “re­move from your de­vice or cease pro­vid­ing you with ac­cess to cer­tain prod­ucts that you have pur­chased.” In short, the two had granted prior per­mis­sion when they ob­tained their books. If ei­ther of them had been pre­sented with a sim­i­lar mul­ti­page li­cens­ing agree­ment when buy­ing a book in a brickand-mor­tar store, one can pre­sume they would have been shocked. But in cy­berspace, con­sumers click an “agree” but­ton with aban­don when pre­sented with li­cens­ing agree­ments.

There is a more omi­nous pos­si­bil­ity loom­ing than changed re­la­tions in the sell­ing and buy­ing of books. The new tech­nol­ogy opens the ad­di­tional pos­si­bil­ity of an Or­wellian fu­ture in which pub­lish­ers can al­ter and cen­sor books while they are still in a reader’s pos­ses­sion.

This fear is not the prod­uct of a para­noid mind but of the re­al­ity of liv­ing in a world in which our de­vices are teth­ered to the in­ter­net. “That is one of the con­se­quences of be­ing con­stantly con­nected,” ex­plained Parker Hig­gins of the Elec­tronic Fron­tier Foun­da­tion, a non­profit dig­i­tal-rights group based in San Francisco.

Gov­ern­ments of all sorts have long found it ir­re­sistible to cen­sor the con­tent of books to vary­ing ex­tents. In the ex­treme case, such as in to­tal­i­tar­ian so­ci­eties, cer­tain books are en­tirely banned, and own­ing them is a crime. Yet even in democ­ra­cies, some de­gree of con­tent re­stric­tions ex­ists. Ma­te­rial deemed li­belous, sedi­tious, or porno­graphic can be legally re­stricted in most places.

But e-books elim­i­nate what might be called the “barn door” con­fronting cen­sors. Once a book is printed and in the hands of a reader, it is for all in­tents and pur­poses un­al­ter­able. If, for in­stance, a court rules that a book con­tains li­belous ma­te­rial and or­ders the pub­lisher to re­move the of­fend­ing sec­tions in sub­se­quent print­ings, those who own the printed book may con­tinue to view such pas­sages. It is now con­ceiv­able that a court or­der of the fu­ture could in­clude al­ter­ing the text on e-books al­ready in the pos­ses­sion of read­ers be­cause, again, the books don’t be­long to the read­ers.

Con­nec­tiv­ity and the chang­ing con­cept of book own­er­ship make the elec­tronic cen­sor­ship fea­si­ble. Robert Darn­ton, the au­thor of Cen­sors at Work: How States Shaped Lit­er­a­ture, is known for his deep stud­ies of cen­sor­ship in the past but con­cedes he has given lit­tle thought to the new pos­si­bil­i­ties of cen­sor­ship. “I don’t think any of us have ad­e­quately con­sid­ered this,” Darn­ton said. “Elec­tronic com­mu­ni­ca­tion opens up the pos­si­bil­ity of cut­ting and past­ing and mod­i­fy­ing texts to an ex­tra­or­di­nary de­gree, and that is a source of real worry.”

One early test of this pos­si­bil­ity is in Europe, where the Euro­pean Union has been pi­o­neer­ing a con­cept known as the “right to be for­got­ten.” Es­sen­tially the idea is an ex­ten­sion of a per­son’s right to pri­vacy. The court rul­ing pro­vides in­di­vid­u­als with a means to re­quire the dele­tion of per­sonal in­for­ma­tion on the in­ter­net so that search en­gines can’t find it. For in­stance, in July, The Guardian re­ceived a no­tice that six ar­ti­cles it had pub­lished could no longer be lo­cated us­ing Google. An ex­am­ple of the of­fend­ing ar­ti­cles, de­scribed by the news­pa­per, was one that re­ported on a soc­cer ref­eree who had lied with re­gard to grant­ing a cru­cial penalty.

Ac­cord­ing to Hig­gins, the early con­duct of the Euro­pean court raises the pos­si­bil­ity that a judge could even­tu­ally is­sue an or­der re­quir­ing that a pas­sage in an e-book or other elec­tronic pub­li­ca­tion be re­moved even years fol­low­ing pub­li­ca­tion.

In the late 1970s, I brought with me on a trip to the Soviet Union a col­lec­tion of books that were banned there, in­clud­ing One Day in the Life of Ivan Deniso­vich, by Alek­sandr Solzhen­it­syn, a work that had orig­i­nally been pub­lished in Rus­sia in 1962 but was later sup­pressed. When I dis­trib­uted the booty to stu­dents in Moscow, I watched as they be­gan to type copies, us­ing car­bon pa­per to ex­tend the num­ber of copies. What then seemed like a prim­i­tive means of es­cap­ing cen­sor­ship may iron­i­cally have a re­vival in the age of e-books.

Printed books may re­main the ul­ti­mate pro­tec­tion against big brother. “It’s un­likely,” Hig­gins notes, “that a court would or­der that some­one break into your house with a glue stick and scis­sors.”

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