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The Dark Side of Amazon

October 23, 2012

Photo: kodomut

Is an Amazon Kindle on your wish list this year? How about having your account shut down and your e-reader rendered all but useless for no apparent reason whatsoever?

Les mer på norsk på NRK.no.

As the more intelligent of my readers have no doubt figured out a long time ago, I am an avid reader. I read fiction and non-fiction alike, and swallow everything from classic novels to cheap thrillers, from graphic novels to textbooks for subjects way outside the scope of my education. Some of my most loyal followers might also remember that I read a lot of my books in a digital format. Ever since I won a Sony e-reader way back in 2009, I have read most of my novels as e-books.

Suddenly, my aging Sony PRS-505 doesn’t seem all that bad…

Come join the dark side…

Even though the Sony has its shortcomings, I have preferred it over the much more convenient Amazon Kindle for purely ideological reasons. I have always disliked Amazon’s customer lock in mechanisms, and have been reluctant to put all my eggs in one basket – or letting all my digital reading depend on one of the giants of the international information and entertainment business. However, trying to track down e-book sellers willing to let me throw my Norwegian money at them in return for the right to download the books I want to a Norwegian IP address has been surprisingly hard. This fall, I had almost decided on giving it all up for the alluringly simple and easy one click purchases and unlimited online access of the Kindle. As the saying goes “Come join the dark side. We have cookies”… Then, along came a story that put me right back on the straight and narrow.

On his blog, Norwegian blogger and IT professional Martin Bekkelund shared the story of how a friend of his, Linn Jordet Nygaard, had her Amazon account closed, leaving her with no way of accessing the 30-40 e-books she had legally bought. Completely without warning, and without any explanation whatsoever.

All the so-called Executive Customer Relations would tell her, was that her account was “directly related to another which has been previously closed for abuse of our policies”. Despite two attempts to get an explanation as to why this happened, which account was involved or which policies she had supposedly violated, the only answer she got was that

“Unfortunately, we will not be able to offer any additional insight or action on these matters”.

Following negative articles in Norwegian news media and on international tech publications and blogs like Cory Doctorow’s Boingboing and Computerworld UK, Amazon turned around and re-activated Nygaard’s account. However, Amazon has still not offered any explanation as to why they closed it in the first place, or why they had this sudden change of mind. According to Simon Phipps of Computerworld, someone in Amazon’s PR department stated that

“We would like to clarify our policy on this topic. Account status should not affect any customer’s ability to access their library. If any customer has trouble accessing their content, he or she should contact customer service for help. Thank you for your interest in Kindle.”

With great power

So account status should not affect any customer’s ability to access their library? Well, in this case, it certainly did. Also, not for a second do I believe that this is the first time this has happened, and I do believe that it will happen again. And again. I have followed Amazon closely since the international release of the Kindle, and I have always known that something like this inevitably would happen to one or more Norwegian customers. In my eyes, this is what happens when a corporation with nearly unlimited marked power controls both content and hardware through destructive DRM. It sure is ugly, but it is hardly surprising, at least not to me.

What is a bit surprising, after all, is that Amazon did not even pretend to have a good reason for their actions, and seems totally uninterested in informing the customer of how this might have been avoided, or how similar incidents may be avoided in the future. This sends a clear signal that Amazon finds it more convenient to crush troublesome customers by sheer mass than actually doing anything to solve or avoid conflicts. So, the question is, what can we, the readers do to avoid or solve this kind of incident? Getting the attention of powerful media helped solve this case, but it is hardly likely that every similar case can be turned into this kind of PR disaster. Ultimately, the incredibly unhelpful person from Amazon’s Customer Relations might have suggested the only real solution:

“We wish you luck in locating a retailer better able to meet your needs”.

Right now, that seems like a rather difficult task. No one offers the combination of convenience and content that Amazon does. On the other hand, hardly anyone treats their customers with the same unique combination of disdain, arrogance and brute market force either¹.

A rock and a hard place

This whole incident has made me think twice about getting a Kindle by reminding me of why I didn’t buy one in the first place. Granted, the combination of an aging Sony reader, online stores like ebooks.com and the whims of international publishers and rights holders is far from ideal. However, having my account closed, access to my books revoked and my e-reader rendered all but useless for no apparent reason is something I won’t put on the top of my wish list anytime soon.

¹Except, perhaps, Apple.

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