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It was the e-commerce story of the weekend, and one that could not help but challenge the confidence that so many dedicated online shoppers felt in the preeminent Internet retailer.

Here are the details. reportedly had been selling electronic copies of two books for its Kindle device that had been made available by a publisher, MobileReference, that did not have the rights to them. When Amazon found out that it had a copyright violation on its hands, it not only stopped selling the electronic versions of the books, but used its technology to remotely remove the books from the Kindles of people who already had bought them, and refunded customers.

Here is the irony. The books in question were George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and “1984.” It is in the latter book, of course, that the government censors news articles embarrassing to the power structure by incinerating them in a “memory hole.”

There was outrage expressed both in traditional media and in the blogosphere, as people said – quite rightly – that the terms of service did not give Amazon the right to remove books from people’s Kindles if they were bought and paid for; they suggested that this was akin to Barnes & Noble sneaking into people’s houses in the middle of the night to take back books that were the subject of copyright questions.

Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener told the New York Times that upon reflection, the deletions were not a good idea and that the company would not make such a move in the future.
KC's View:
Too late. Amazon did it once, and that’s enough to create questions in shoppers’ minds about the nature of the online relationship, especially since the New York Times reports that some customers have said that they have seen e-copies of some Harry Potter books and Ayn Rand novels deleted from their Kindles.

Now, this won’t kill the Kindle, in part because most people who have the device tend to feel passionately about it. (I count myself in this group.) But it certainly has created trust issues. (And it may create an opening if another company – such as Apple – wants to come out with a competing device that won’t allow companies to delete content after it has been bought.)

What’s amazing to me is that apparently at no point did anyone at Amazon’s headquarters say 1) we can't be in the business of deleting content that people already have bought, and 2) we certainly can't delete books by George Orwell because that simply hands the media a better story, and makes it look like we’ve never even read the books that we’re selling.

This plays into a point made repeatedly here on MNB. Companies need to have someone at the table who has as his or her job the requirement that they not drink the kool-aid … kind of the role that ombudsmen play at newspapers around the country, representing the readers as opposed to the press.

Amazon could have dealt with this issue by sending people who had bought the illegal books an email explaining the problem and asking for permission to replace the ones that they bought with legal e-books. Most people, I suspect, would have been happy to go along. And it would have been collaborative, rather than intrusive. Trust would have remained intact.

One other thing. Amazon has to say – right now - that it is permanently disabling the remote delete feature from its Kindle technology. CEO Jeff Bezos has to say that they made a mistake and that this will not happen again.