Kindle owners beware – that electronic copy of a book you thought you purchased and, thus, owned? Not so much.

As it turns out, the publishers to whom Amazon is so beholden for Kindle content still own the content. That’s why they can decide at a whim to give you back your money and have your copies of books erased from your digital device without notifying you until the deed is already done.

That’s what happened to hundreds of Kindle owners who thought they had purchased safe, legal copies of George Orwell’s novels 1984 and Animal Farm. Copies of these novels were erased from Kindles under cover of darkness last night. This morning, Amazon sent affected users a form e-mail, noting that there had been a “problem” with their digital copies of the book and crediting their Kindle store accounts, the digital equivalent of a “Had a nice time, call you soon”  note left on the end table by someone slinking out of a one night stand.

The gall of invading peoples privacy  this way aside, Amazon’s caginess on the matter sets a troubling precedent for similar issues in the future, as does their refusal to define just what the “problem” with the books was. Were they riven with typos? Were they illegal copies, and if so what were they doing on the Kindle store in the first place? Were they alternate texts that were never meant to see the light of day – a copy of 1984, for example, that culminates in Winston Smith’s flamethrower rampage through the heart of London?

Why, in other words, is it okay to access and erase user data without notification or permission, but out of bounds to discuss why it was done?

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