12/06/2007

Kindle Redux

It's quite amazing the arguments and controversy that have surrounded, and continue to surround, Amazon's Kindle e-ink electronic book reader since its launch a few weeks back. Charlie Stross has weighed in with his own, largely skeptical argument concerning the device. Charlie makes some good points, and although I'd be prepared to argue with some of those points, one he does make I wasn't previously aware is the potential misuse of personal data, more particularly the revelation that the Kindle stores details on Amazon's own servers concerning the specific reading habits of a Kindle owner.

Centrally stored personal data is always open to abuse. Just look at the recent debacle of 25 million people's personal data being lost by a UK government department in the post. Or the recent apology the founder of Facebook had to make to his site's users when data relating to their online shopping habits was made visible to other account holders. There is of course the more insidious fear of being spied upon by your own, or someone else's, government. So the fact that data is being stored about what you're reading on a Kindle, and possibly even what pages of a book you spend the most time on, is of real concern.

Charlie is not the only one to point out that it would have been wiser to allow Kindle users the option of storing bookmarks etc. solely on the Kindle rather than on Amazon's own servers, thereby offering some degree of privacy. This kind of thing can be of particular concern to a writer, if they're working - say - on a book that requires research on militant Islam, bomb making, and methods of terrorism; it's the kind of information that you don't want being used against you in a political environment now or in the near future where free speech might not be a given.

However, it's also worth reading the hundred or so comments at the end of Charlie's post, which are full of comments and counter arguments of some interest. Again, it's worth restating that the Kindle is a particular implementation of e-ink technology, and an early adopter one at that. If there's one thing we can be sure of, it's that there will be many more e-ink readers to come.

In relation to the aforementioned post, it's also worth taking a look at an online article on the Publisher's Weekly website, in which we find the following paragraph:
"Among other things, the (Amazon.com Privacy) Notice says: “We release account and other personal information when we believe release is appropriate to comply with the law…” In fairness to Amazon and Bezos, his company has laudably fought snooping. But with all the new snoop fodder Jeff is creating, one wonders if he’ll always be successful. In the end the big question is, Can you imagine Jeff risking his billions someday in a major way to protect your rights? Bottom line: If you want a novice-friendly machine as perceived by most reviewers, by all means consider the Kindle. If you want a more privacy-friendly alternative, look elsewhere ... should consumers and the book industry trust Amazon with long-term storage of e-books, not to mention such a prominent role in their distribution?"
That 'account and personal information' bit relates to "information related to the content on your Device and your use of it (such as automatic bookmarking of the last page read and content deletions from the Device). Annotations, bookmarks, notes, highlights, or similar markings you make in your Device are backed up through the Service."

Hmm. On the plus side, from this article in news.com -
"Amazon.com won an important legal fight to preserve its customers' privacy by persuading a court to reject requests for 24,000 customer records made by federal prosecutors in Madison, Wisconsin ... Two years earlier (in 2000), a judge denied the Drug Enforcement Administration's attempts to get sales records from a Borders bookstore as part of a grand jury investigation. And perhaps the most famous case came when independent counsel Kenneth Starr tried unsuccessfully to obtain Monica Lewinsky's purchase records from Kramerbooks, a popular neighborhood bookstore in Washington, D.C."
Further,
"Amazon is following the tradition of other booksellers, which have a tradition of--individually and through the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression--opposing requests from overzealous prosecutors."
Unfortunately, these kinds of issues aren't going to go away for a long time. Most publishers are certainly going to hold onto DRM for as long as possible (with a few notable exceptions like Baen, and individual novelists who post commercially available works online for free), partly because of their fear of piracy, and partly because many people in the publishing industry are of a generation that is not entirely au fait with the online world and computers. The whole issue of DRM and copyright is part and parcel of an ongoing paradigm shift in the developed Western countries regarding the means of distribution of music, art, films and writing that'll take years to settle down, if ever.

However, on a lighter note; I tripped across this video clip - it's entirely on French so I can't understand a word that's being said, but it's worth watching nonetheless since it appears to offer a 'day after tomorrow' glimpse into what a world of cheaply available, second or third generation e-book readers might be like.

And a final note; one of the first complaints regarding the Kindle was its ugliness - curiously enough, some of those who found it ugly after seeing it online have apparently retracted this concern after actually purchasing one. In the end, nobody apparently really knows what they think of one of these things (including me) until they actually get their hands on one, at which point all bets appear to be off ...
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