E-Book Advisory

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 brick-and-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.” ◀