Image: Big Brother poster
Larry Ellis  /  Getty Images file
'Big Brother' has some 'personalized recommendations' for your Amazon 'wish list.'
Helen Popkin
By
msnbc.com
updated 7/21/2009 8:59:32 AM ET 2009-07-21T12:59:32

"There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork," George Orwell wrote in his 1949 tale of a totalitarian regime “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

On the bright side, we've now identified the system. It’s Amazon!

Yeah, you thought it would be Google, right? The search engine that knows when you are sleeping, knows when you’re awake, knows when you are working, knows when you’re downloading Polynesian lady men … and well, that’s probably true. But still …

Last week, flummoxed Kindle owners came upon the group realization that Amazon went and deleted their downloads of George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and “Animal Farm” … and the story just keeps being funny. Seriously. Of all the downloaded books in all the InterWebs, how can it be that these two dystopian classics are the ones that are mysteriously removed. (Beware the two-legged merchants!)

In a time when highway signs are hacked to warn motorists against the approaching zombie horde , it’s hard to believe this isn’t yet another brilliant hack. And yet it’s not! Oh I tell ya kids, you can’t make this stuff up. Well, you can. If you’re good. Zombie road sign good. Even if you are, reality beat you to it. And thanks to yet another case of Amazon’s ham-fisted customer service tactics, this story isn’t getting old anytime soon.

“I've received e-mails today notifying me of refunds for $.99 for 'Animal Farm' and '1984,' and both have disappeared from my Kindle archived items,” Caffeine Queen reported Thursday, July 16 on the Amazon discussion boards. “I didn't request refunds, and I also don't remember purchasing the titles.”

Spooky! According to the blanket press release posted after the fact, “These books were added to our catalog using our self-service platform by a third-party who did not have the rights to the books.” Therefore, what choice did Amazon have but to crank its “Whispernet” download highway into reverse, thus removing any circulated copies? Why ever should anyone complain?

“I liken it to a (Barnes & Noble) clerk coming to my house when I'm not home, taking a book I bought from them from my bookshelf and leaving cash in its place,” wrote Sunny Lady, invoking the Internet Age-old argument about digital rights management (DRM) technology that limits use of content and devices. “It's a violation of my property and this is a perfect example of why people (rightly) hate DRM.”

Amazon did have its defenders. “If you buy something that turns out to be stolen, it can be confiscated and returned to the legal owner with no compensation to you,” wrote M. Francis.  “You could try to get your money back from the vendor, but that would be something you would have to pursue yourself; the police wouldn't do anything about it.”

Predictably, a discussion board flame war ensued, with affected parties chiming in with a wide and entertaining range of intelligence and hysteria levels — your typical discussion board fare. Beyond the DRM issues, of which there are many, and tips on how to prevent Amazon from taking back your Kindle downloads, and why you should never, ever prevent Amazon from taking back your Kindle downloads, one recurring issue sounded very much like a previous Amazon case of shenanigans.

“I was annoyed that the e-mail announcing the refund gave no explanation or indication that the books were being deleted,” Caffeine Queen pointed out later in the discussion.” “It's the same e-mail they send if the buyer initiates a refund.”

That’s right, kids! It’s that same craptastic customer service that led to Amazon’s great public relations debacle of April 09, when the masses realized that thousands of gay and lesbian titles were missing from the inventory.

Instead of addressing the issue before it became big news, Amazon waited two days — roughly 80 billion eons in Internet years — to let the public know that the “ham-fisted cataloging error” dropped thousands of books in a number of broad categories — not just gay and lesbian titles.

Soon after the Orwellian George Orwell recall went public, Amazon issued a statement claiming that, “We are changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers’ devices in these circumstances.” Still, it’s hard to trust a two-time loser that fails to see the irony in its own Orwellian FAIL. 

Why not friend Helen A.S. Popkin on Facebook before Facebook makes the suggestion ... or just follow her on Twitter?

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