Kindle Deleting Paid-For Books—And Other Amazon Digital Nightmares

As Amazon this week was experiencing the latest in a lengthy series of digital embarrassments—involving its e-book reader Kindle going into customers' collections and deleting already-paid-for copies of (so help me) Orwellian classics 1984 and Animal Farm--it also had to fend off the latest assault attempt by Barnes & Noble. Indeed, as Barnes & Noble was offering an E-book version of Sense and Sensibility, Amazon was showing a remarkable lack of both.

And in the meantime, Amazon was also finalizing its $807 million acquisition of Zappos.com. A busy week in Amazon Land.

Amazon has long held a much-deserved reputation for stellar technological execution, which is why their dastardly diabolical and delicious digital download delete disasters are so damn depressing and destructive. (Fear not. That last sentence has satisfied by alliteration needs for the next month.) In short, digital downloads bring with them a huge number of unanticipated IT problems, in what is likely a preview of mobile commerce nightmares around the corner.

The Orwellian situation started innocently enough. Amazon apparently had a deal—or someone at Amazon thought they had a deal—with the Orwell publisher to offer E-book versions of those two classics. Amazon offered them for sale and consumers started buying.

At some point, the publisher either changed its mind or clarified its intent. Either way, the publisher said that it did not give permission for electronic versions. Amazon then removed the books from its store.

At that point, the story gets unclear. It might be that when the books were removed from the Kindle download area, the system—like other client-server systems—fully deleted it, which included going out to its client devices (the Kindles owned by consumers) and deleting them. That scenario has Amazon unintentionally deleting those consumer copies.

The more nefarious version is that Amazon's people knew exactly what they were doing and that they completely erased everything in an attempt to appease the lawyer-happy publisher. That version falls under the Permission Versus Forgiveness school of thought, where Amazon would rather ask consumer forgiveness after the deletions.

The only hint is that Amazon officially has now said that it would not automatically remove purchased copies of Kindle books "if a similar situation arose in the future." Of course, it's not clear what Amazon would consider a "similar situation." It would have been much more reassuring had Amazon said "This was an error. From now on, if someone pays for an E-book, it's will be their property and we can't take it back, no matter what."

Update: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos stepped up the plate on Thursday (July 23) afternoon and issued the following statement: "This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle. Our 'solution' to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we've received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission. With deep apology to our customers." It's a little late, but it's an excellent start.

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