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What Big Brother can do to your e-books

By Emily Chung, CBCNews.ca

Be warned -- e-books are not like their paper counterparts. The company that sold them to you can make them disappear from your collection at any time without warning. You may have paid for them, but you do not own them.

"Now, that we've discovered that Amazon can remotely and automatically delete your books without your knowledge or consent, what's to stop Amazon, some other company, or the government from not merely deleting it, but replacing it with an edited version? Nothing." -- Blogger Stephen J. Vaughan-Nichols

Amazon sent that message loud and clear last week -- shocking many users of its Kindle e-book reader -- when it deleted two George Orwell e-books from customers' virtual bookshelves. Ironically, one of them was 1984, which depicts a dystopian world where authorities strictly control and manipulate information available to the public. The company refunded the customers' money, but didn't give them any warning.

It wasn't just the book itself that was permanently deleted, but also bookmarks, highlights and anything you might have "scribbled in the margins."

"They didn’t just take a book back, they stole my work," Justin Gawronski, a 17-year-old from the Detroit area, told the New York Times after he lost all his notes and annotations along with the copy of 1984 he was using for a school assignment. There was no word on whether teachers are now accepting "Amazon ate my homework" as a valid excuse.

Amazon now says it won't do this kind of stealth deletion in the future, but commentators such as Computerworld blogger Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, suggested the incident still has far-reaching implications.

"Now, that we've discovered that Amazon can remotely and automatically delete your books without your knowledge or consent, what's to stop Amazon, some other company, or the government from not merely deleting it, but replacing it with an edited version? Nothing."

In fact, he notes, that's more or less what happens in the plot of 1984.

"If we rely on companies like Amazon that claims the right to control our books," he said. "We're opening the door to letting a future Big Brother control not just what we read, but eventually, what we think."

Mind you, this isn't the first time e-book customers have learned the hard way that they have limited control over the e-books they have purchased. You can read some other horror stories and more details related to the intellectual property perils of e-books on a previous TechBytes post.

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