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Simon Phipps

With a focus on open source and digital rights, Simon is a director of the UK's Open Rights Group and president of the Open Source Initiative. He is also managing director of UK consulting firm Meshed Insights Ltd.

Rights? You have no right to your eBooks.

Amazon unwittingly mounts a perfect demonstration why you should not trust Kindle as a place to purchase books.

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News spread quickly on the web today of the predicament faced by a woman in Norway, Linn, who has lost all access to the eBooks she legitimately purchased from Amazon. The story first emerged on a friend's blog, where a sequence of e-mails from Michael Murphy, a customer support representative at Amazon.co.uk were posted. These painted a picture some interpreted as Amazon remotely erasing a customer's Kindle, but in conversation with Linn I discovered that was not what had happened - something just as bad did, though.

Linn lives in Norway, where Amazon does not operate (Amazon.no redirects to the Amazon Europe page). She bought a Kindle in the UK, liked it and read a number of books on it. She then gave that Kindle to her mother, and bought a used Kindle on a Danish classifieds site to which she transferred her account. She has been happily reading on it for some time, purchasing her books with a Norwegian address and credit card. She told me she'd read 30 or 40 books on it.

Sadly, the device developed a fault (actually a second time, it was also replaced in 2011 for the same reason) and started to display black lines on the screen (something I've heard from other friends as it happens). She called Amazon customer service, and they agreed to replace it if she returned it, although they insisted on shipping the replacement to a UK address rather to her in Norway.

Then the e-mails that her friend Martin re-posted arrived. Linn has had no explanation from Amazon about what they think she has done wrong. All the e-mails simply refer to "another account which has been previously closed for abuse of our policies", in a tone reminiscent of a patronising official saying "you know what you did wrong so I'm not going to tell you". The e-mails also look as if they are simply a cut-and-paste from some procedure manual, because others have received exactly the same text (with just as little warning, explanation or recourse). 

Her account has been closed, web access denied, and Linn has been told she is not welcome at Amazon - and good luck finding another retailer.

No Rights To Your Purchases

Where does that leave Linn? The old Kindle no longer works, so although she presumes her purchased books are still on it she can't read on that. She can't use the Kindle app on her iPad or online because the account has been closed. She can't download anything. She can't follow up with Amazon because all the tools to do that require logging in, and when she contacts Amazon all their agents refuse to talk with her and refer her to Murphy. She's still got 5 or 6 books she was planning to read and has no way to access them. That means a perfectly genuine and honest customer has lost as many as 50 books that were on her old Kindle.

As well as contacting Linn, I tried hard to contact Amazon today. It seems that "Michael Murphy" does not work for Amazon UK, and the number I was given to try in Ireland failed. Amazon's PR department did not answer calls or reply to messages or e-mail. So while I would love to tell their side of the story, I have had no more luck getting a reply than Linn.

I can make some guesses, though. I once bought a Kindle as a gift for a friend. Two years later I discovered that, each time my friend contacted Amazon with a hardware support request (same fault as Linn), I would be sent an e-mail about it too. Each Kindle has a unique serial number, which Amazon appear to associate with a purchaser if they can. Even though the Kindle may be used by another customer, Amazon seems to still associate it with the original purchaser. I wonder whether the person who originally bought Linn's Kindle from Amazon has fallen foul of their system? It may very well be that Linn has been accidentally implicated in a completely unrelated dispute with another customer.

It's hard to say what can happen next. Amazon holds all the cards (as well as load of Linn's books and quite a bit of her money), and the Byzantine complexity of their licensing arrangements probably means they will come back and say that, according to their own terms, they did nothing wrong anyway. One can only hope that eventually Linn will be contacted by someone who writes their own e-mails rather than just cutting-and-pasting from a script, and that her books - and reputation - will be restored.

Power Too Concentrated

There are of course important lessons to learn here. The core of Linn's problem is that the supplier of her eBooks and the service provider for her cloud-linked reading device are one and the same company. While she should be able to carry on reading using a different reading device and/or provider, having legitimately purchased the books, she is prevented from doing so by a problem with the service provider. 

Worse, Amazon is very keen to perpetuate this controlling relationship. By placing DRM on the books, by using a proprietary format for them and by locking down the reading device, Amazon does everything it can to prevent Linn from exercising any freedom of choice.

There's undoubtedly more to discover in this case, but the lessons about control are clear. Locked-down devices, proprietary formats and digital restrictions all combine to create the conditions for this sort of failure. Combine that with the faceless bureaucracy of a large company with little respect for its customers and their liberty, and this sort of situation is bound to arise. 

It seems Amazon just mounted a perfect demonstration of what's wrong with the Kindle model. What better reason could there be to buy your eBooks from DRM-free sources like the Humble Bundle?


Update @ 23:55 - Linn just contacted me to say her account has been mysteriously re-activated and she's busily downloading her books. Hopefully Amazon will have more news for us all soon. Even positive arbitrary actions disclose how much Kindle customers read only with the grace of Amazon, of course...

Update @ 00:30 - Amazon PR just wrote to say: "We would like to clarify our policy on this topic. Account status should not affect any customer's ability to access their library. If any customer has trouble accessing their content, he or she should contact customer service for help. Thank you for your interest in Kindle."


Follow Simon as @webmink on Twitter and Identi.Ca and also on Google+

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