E-Book Burning, Ctd

Andrew Sullivan —  Sep 25 2012 @ 7:35am

A reader quotes Maria Konnikova:

An e-book is not a physical book. That point might seem trite until you stop for a moment to think how much simpler it is, in a certain sense, to destroy electronic than physical traces.

But the opposite is equally true.  That is, it is much harder to destroy electronic than physical traces.  As anyone who has lost control of an image of themselves online can attest, electronic artifacts can be copied anywhere and everywhere at the speed of light, and be stored anywhere and everywhere.  They are extremely difficult to wipe out. DRM makes it harder to make, and therefore hang on to, copies of an e-book, but not all that much harder.

Is somebody going to go to the trouble for a book like Lehrer's?  Not likely.  But for the kinds of e-literature one might worry about being burned, the kinds that historically have been burned, people absolutely will.

Another writes:

For sure, it's simple for Amazon or Barnes & Noble to scrub a book's existence from their stores and devices. That's no small issue for those who care about protecting the right to free speech, especially at a time when the entire digital marketplace is dominated by so few publishers. However, the qualities that make a digital text so easy to pull from the "shelves" are the same qualities that make it almost impossible to eradicate.

Jonah Lehrer's book was bought and downloaded by thousands of readers before it was recalled. The tools to remove an e-book's DRM encryption are freely available and trivial to use, even for a low-tech buyer with a cheap PC. Once the book is decrypted, it's just another file on a computer, as easy to copy and send around as any photo or Microsoft Word document. E-book files are tiny compared to other commonly-pirated media like movies and music; most are under 10 megabytes, which is small enough to send as an email attachment. And if they're stripped of their fancy formatting and converted into plain text, they get even smaller. Project Gutenberg's entire collection of over 40,000 public-domain titles would fit comfortably on an average iPod.

A single e-book could be copied thousands of times in a matter of hours. It could be emailed to a list of random addresses; uploaded to dozens of peer-to-peer sharing services like BitTorrent; published in disguise on Tumblr or Facebook; or hidden inside another file and uploaded to any of a hundred free project-hosting services like deviantArt or GitHub. And in the miraculous event that some draconian government agency (or private bureaucracy) was able to track down and destroy every public copy of poor Jonah's opus, the book could be kept safe in any number of private backup services like Dropbox, Google Drive or Carbonite, all under anonymous and untraceable accounts, waiting for their owners to try again and again.

All it takes is a single person to liberate a single copy from the clutches of her $120 Amazon Kindle, and in a matter of minutes, that text is well beyond the reach of any corporate kill-switch – especially if a motivated group of people have dedicated themselves to its preservation. The traditional, Orwellian methods of censorship are powerless against the awesome technology that we have now placed in virtually every home in America. (This is, of course, not to underestimate the creativity of future despots.)