Steal from my Kindle, please

Analyst Opinion – Once upon a time, I wanted to buy an electronic book reader. After Amazon’s recent Orwellian adventure, now I’m not so sure.

A lot of things have to happen over the next couple of years to build public acceptance of book readers like the Kindle. I’m going to guess that vendors unilaterally reaching into customers’ devices and deleting already-purchased content isn’t going to help matters.

Amazon admitted last week that it electronically removed copies of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm from customers’ Kindle ebook readers after discovering they should not have been sold in the first place. A third party company had used Amazon’s self-service portal to upload the books – unfortunately, that company didn’t have distribution rights in the first place.

So technically and legally, Amazon was fully justified in reversing the sales. Morally and ethically, however, Amazon has defined a new low in customer service, and in doing so has quite likely done significant damage to the Kindle brand. Boneheaded wouldn’t be an inappropriate adjective to use.

Here’s what Amazon should have done after realizing the ebooks shouldn’t have been sold in the first place:

– Sent an e-mail to all affected owners explaining what had happened.
– Established a process and timeline for either obtaining refunds or exchanging the electronic copies in question for alternative content.
– Allocated resources, including dedicated Web pages, toll-free numbers and customer service agents, to answer questions and manage the process.
– Tightened up its acceptance procedures on its self-service portal to prevent similar content from showing up in future.
– Cranked up the PR machine to tell the whole story to a broader audience.

Such a response would have been proactive, visible and honorable. Instead, Amazon chose to skulk through the back door when no one was looking. I’m not entirely sure what Amazon was thinking – or if it was thinking at all – but this should serve as an example for any other company hoping to make the best of a bad situation: In the Age of the Internet, someone, somewhere is going to notice what you’re doing, and if you think you’ll be able to pull it off in total silence and secrecy, you’re fooling only yourself.

Potential customers, still on the fence over whether they should buy into the evolving ebook market, can’t help but see this as a warning flag against buying in anytime soon. Better to wait until the companies themselves figure out how to properly manage their business – from approving content only from authorized suppliers to managing wireless distribution mechanisms without raising privacy hackles in the process – before taking the ebook plunge.

Interestingly, Apple gets a lot of grief for the process it uses to approve iPhone and iPod touch applications for its App Store. Developers often accuse the company of following an opaque, user-unfriendly approval process that can leave some of them hanging for months. Developer discontent aside, what matters here is that Apple actually has a vetting process and is better protected against rogue submissions from sketchy third-party firms.

In comparison, Amazon’s self service model just doesn’t cut it. And as it tries to fix the damage from this misadventure, it’ll need to convince the market all over again that electronic book readers don’t expose consumers to a Pandora’s Box full of privacy concerns worthy of Big Brother. Until it does, it’ll be paper for me.

Carmi Levy is a Canadian technology analyst and journalist covered with scars from his years leading IT help desks and managing software development projects for big bad insurance companies. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.