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Turning the Screw

Increasingly, there seems to be an Orwellian slant to the machinations of the Internet. Last summer, early adopters of the Kindle and fans of George Orwell would probably have been rather frustratingly struck by the irony of waking up to find their library somewhat diminished. As one blog writes,

“In George Orwell’s “1984,” government censors erase all traces of news articles embarrassing to Big Brother by sending them down an incineration chute called the “memory hole.” On Friday, it was “1984” and another Orwell book, “Animal Farm”, that were dropped down the memory hole – by Amazon.com.”

Another blog notes that the Kindle is “basically a device that Amazon controls that you just happen to have in your hands.” The novels were removed after being added by a company that did not have the sufficient rights to them. This may be sufficient reason to remove the product from the store; it does not, however, excuse the way in which Amazon went about systematically removing copies that were on owner’s devices, who had already paid them. The incident was noted in a more recent editorial in the FT, evincing a mounting ownership creep on behalf of major corporations. Now, more than ever, when products are not only files on your desktop but stored remotely in a cloud, a consumer’s rights to ownership have never felt less tangible.

Apple, specifically its App Store, has recently come under fire again, this time for the removal of adult apps. Some adult-themed apps, such as the Playboy app, will remain available. It is the thought of Apple acting not only as moral arbiter, but also in an ad hoc manner with that responsibility, which should give consumers cause for concern. If someone creates an app or wants to distribute a book online in the future, will they hesitate to share their innovation and creativity for fear it could be summarily deleted at will by a fickle corporation? TechCrunch has a fascinating and well-written article here on the removal by Google of many music blogs that were deemed under the DCMA to be infringing on intellectual property. Again, as in the Kindle case, it is less the justification of the action (although this can also be disputed), and more the way it was done that is inexcusable.

In the Communist nirvana that is China, things are worse. Le Monde reports that though the country is on the brink of launching IPv6, allowing people to create and type in URLs using Chinese characters, the government is also imposing draconian measures for those wishing to set up websites. The government already restricts access to sites such as BBC News, Facebook and Twitter. In the past two weeks, they have also asked that anyone wishing to open a web site must present themselves before the authorities with their identity card and photographs of themselves, ostensibly to combat pornography. Not only is this measure entirely unnecessary and completely antithetical to the libertarian principles of the Internet, but from a practical standpoint it is wildly inefficient and will certainly stifle innovation. The UK government’s initial plans for censuring those who share files illegally have been, for the moment, stayed.

Conversely, these same bodies are not operating with impunity, even in situations where arguably they are not to blame. Three Google executives were convicted in Italy at the end of last month. The charge, Reuters reported, was “violating the privacy of an Italian boy with autism by letting video of him be posted on the site in 2006.” Quite how it was decided that those hosting the video – on a site that apparently serves a billion videos every day – could possibly have responsibility for it is beyond Zeitgeist. The New York Times writes “It suggests that Google is not simply a tool for its users, as it contends, but is effectively no different from any other media company, like newspapers or television, that provides content and could be regulated”. One of the accused, global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer, commented that if employees were “criminally liable for any video on a hosting platform, when they had absolutely nothing to do with the video in question, then our liability is unlimited.” Despite corporate overreach in some areas, sometimes the judicial system can be just as harsh on those same corporations. The insight is that what goes around, comes around.

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  1. March 5, 2010 at 4:42 pm

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