Blown To Bits

Archive for July, 2009

The Orwellian Kindle

Friday, July 17th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

I love my Kindle. I love being able to go to China for a week and not having to judge which books to bring by their weight. I love that I can make the type the size I want, not the size the publisher decided to use to keep the page count down.  I love being able to buy on impulse (at least where there is Whispernet coverage, which is most definitely not everywhere). I love that I can dump 50 student papers on the damn thing and not have to carry a ream of paper around with me. I love that I can read immaterial bits, rather than heavy atoms.

I’ve never loved the fact that I can’t lend a book to my wife after I’ve gotten through reading it, though. And while I know that I’m kind of renting the books rather than buying them, so far that’s been OK. In fact it’s been great — when I accidentally deleted a book from my Kindle, I could get it back for free. Can’t do that with my copy of The Greening of America that is lost somewhere in my basement. Owning it does me no good.

Comes now an amazing ironic demonstration that the bits on my Kindle really aren’t mine. They are just on loan to me, with a big tether attached. Amazon accidentally sold some books to Kindle users that it didn’t actually have rights to. When if figured out its boo-boo, it took the books back, without asking. The buyers had their accounts credited, and whoosh, the books were gone. So much for the appearance of buying and owning.

The irony is that¬†the books were Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. If Orwell had thought of it, I am confident he would have done something with that image of tethered books always in jeopardy of being yanked from your hands without your knowledge or consent, and its reminder that if all your reading material is on your Kindle, then the complete profile of what you read is in the hands of Big Brother Amazon.

Added 7/18:

Randal Picker blogs this item as well (which is also featured in the NY Times). Picker concentrates on the fact that ultimately Amazon was simply withdrawing an illegally provided document, and his moral is about how copyright should be enforced.¬†Fair ’nuff. He notes the irony, and I note the illegality, so we’re not disagreeing, except perhaps about what the most important take-away lesson is. For me it’s not about copyright; it’s about making the public aware of the control possibilities when creative works are transformed from physical to digital objects. ¬†A born-again Jeff Bezos unhappy about the portrayal of Jesus in some novel, or a federal executive backed up by a judicial decision that some book is obscene, could, technically, easily take it away from everyone who thought they had bought it. A PATRIOT-Act inspired investigator wondering who is reading terrorist literature could get the answer from Amazon; in the digital world there is no walking into Revolution Books and paying cash. Which of these technical possibilities would actually be legal is another question, of course — and which, legal or not, might happen without anyone checking first is another question still.

As If To Prove My Point …

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

‚Ķ the US State Department reports that US Immigration checks the Facebook pages of people seeking to enter the US, looking for signs of fraud. I’d love to know what other parts of the government look at Facebook for what other purposes.

That article has some other remarkable passages, about State Dept web browsers and the Sec’y of State on peanut butter.

Facebook in Iran

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Evgeny Morozov has a scary report at the NPR web site that should serve as a reminder of how hard it now is to keep our various personae separate when our social life is conducted online. I’ll quote, rather than paraphrase, what happened to an Iranian-American woman.

On passing through the immigration control at the airport in Tehran, she was asked by the officers if she has a Facebook account. When she said “no”, the officers pulled up a laptop and searched for her name on Facebook. They found her account and noted down the names of her Facebook friends.

Scary and creepy. But why, exactly? It’s not like the information was rummaged out of her personal papers or extracted by torture. Anyone who uses Facebook much knows that the list of your friends is usually public information. Hundreds of millions of people could have gotten the same information without the woman even being aware that it was happening. This poor woman probably felt that her Iranian identity was separate from her American identity. And the Iranian authorities, who surely have been frustrated by the Internet’s connecting capabilities, have figured out that there is another side to that coin.

Think about it. There is absolutely no reason to think that ANY government would not do the same thing. Nobody needs a search warrant to find out who your “friends” are — they just need your name. Any police officer or boarder guard anywhere in the world could do the same thing. So could any employer or prospective employer, college admissions officer, etc.

Unless, that is, you change Facebook’s default privacy settings. Go to Settings, and select Privacy Settings. On the page that comes up, look under Search Result Content. Uncheck “My Friend List.” There may be a few other boxes you’ll want to uncheck too. Don’t forget to click Save Changes.

“A Case that Cried Out for Someone to Do Something”

Friday, July 3rd, 2009 by Harry Lewis

The conviction of Lori Drew, the mother whose ¬†Myspace impersonation of a 13-year-old boy was followed by the suicide of Megan Meier, has been set aside by the judge in the case. ¬†There being no anti-cyberbullying statute ore anything else under which she could be charged in Missouri, where she and Meier lived only a few blocks apart, a federal prosecutor in California (where MySpace is located) charged her under a federal law meant to criminalize hacking into bank accounts and credit card sites. The prosecutor reasoned that lying to MySpace on its registration form was sort of the same thing. By that standard, as we noted on this blog, everybody would be a federal criminal — especially as most social networking sites reserve the right to change their terms of service without telling you. And that is exactly the reasoning Judge Wu used in dismissing the case, even though a jury had returned a guilty verdict. You can’t throw someone in jail under an interpretation of a statute so broad that pretty much everyone would be eligible for incarceration. It’s unconstitutional.

There are legal questions here that I am sure are going to be analyzed. Would jury nullification have been a possibility here, had some juror spoken up to say that the statute was ridiculous if this is what it implied? If not that, what should the jury have done?

But the scary part is the prosecutor’s explanation for what he acknowledges was a “risky’ strategy. He heard a cry “for someone to do something,” and he responded. In other words, he thinks there are parallel universes, the universe of law and the universe of justice. His job is to figure out what’s just and to find a law that can be stretched to fit the facts. That is a really scary attitude on the part ¬†of a federal prosecutor. Lori Drew perhaps should fry in hell, but that is not the business of the temporal sphere. Missouri should perhaps rewrite its laws to make it easier to prosecute the next cyberbully, and the legislature has in fact done that. But if it were the job of the state’s attorneys to decide what is right and wrong independent of the laws, we wouldn’t need the laws at all, we could just rely on their judgment of good and evil. ¬†That’s not how democracies work.

DOJ Questions the Google Books Settlement

Friday, July 3rd, 2009 by Harry Lewis

The Department of Justice has now confirmed rumors that it was taking an interest in the draft settlement between Google and the Authors and Publishers, now before federal judge Denny Chin (who just sentenced Bernie Madoff to 150 years). Presumably the question for the DOJ is whether the proposed settlement is anti-competitive; Google responds “It‚Äôs important to note that this agreement is non-exclusive and if approved by the court, stands to expand access to millions of books in the U.S.‚Äù Which is true, but may well not be sufficient to avoid anti-trust issues.¬†¬†See the Digital Daily post here, which includes a link to the actual correspondence between the government and Judge Chin. Judge Chin notes that he is still planning to hold a Fairness hearing on October 7, and if the government wants its views known in writing, it has to submit something by September 18.