Digital Disappearing Acts Roil Users

Amazon's ill-considered decision last week to remotely remove George Orwell books from users' Kindles has already sparked much outrage, including at least one call for new legislation and a vow to file a class-action lawsuit.

It's not surprising that people are reacting strongly to Amazon's move. If nothing else, the company powerfully demonstrated just how transient digital content can be. Still, while the purge of the Orwell books clearly stunned people, it wasn't the first time a Web company has shown it can delete digital bits as easily as they were uploaded.

Last month, Flickr made headlines for expunging 1,300 photos by Virginia resident Shepard Johnson without any advance notice. Johnson says the deletion came after he posted critical comments and at least one image to the official White House Flickr page.

And that's not the only example. Companies that update software remotely have often irked users by tinkering with programs in ways consumers don't like. For instance, two years ago Apple famously released a software update that turned unlocked iPhones into iBricks.

Also, while it's not precisely the same, Microsoft, Yahoo and Wal-Mart all threatened to strand online music buyers by ceasing to support the digital rights management technology that came bundled with tracks. (Those companies later changed their plans and agreed to continue supporting DRM, at least for now.)

That companies have the power to remotely control consumers' property is a very real problem. To remedy it, consumers will inevitably take matters into their own hands -- either by eschewing some digital content/storage or figuring out how to copy it, even if that means circumventing the built-in restrictions. The latter course might raise some thorny legal questions, but these considerations aren't likely to slow consumers down -- not as long as companies like Amazon think nothing of digitally deleting books that people thought were theirs.

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