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Thursday, August 28, 2014
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Published: Saturday, 8/1/2009

Fahrenheit 95

RAY Bradbury's 1953 novel, Fahrenheit 451, envisioned a world in which governments control information by burning books judged to contain dangerous ideas that might lead people to think for themselves and question authority.

Recently, Amazon reached out electronically and covertly plucked two e-books from the popular Kindle reading devices of thousands of customers, suggesting that in a future in which more and more information - from news to literature - will be Web-based, the technology already exists to control what people can and cannot know.

Of course, Amazon CEO Jeffrey Bezos apologized abjectly and profusely for deleting the books, ironically, George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm, both also classics about totalitarian societies. Recalling the books, he said, was Amazon's only choice since they had been obtained from a bookseller who did not own the rights to the novels.

But that doesn't make it any less scary that Amazon, with the merest push of a button, was able to reach across the ether to make entire works of literature vanish from an electronic bookshelf.

By doing so, Amazon has proven that if they can do it, they will, and it's a short leap from there to government taking control of the publisher's delete button. Paranoia? Hardly.

Earlier this year, China demanded that software filters be installed on computers in that country to prevent its citizens from visiting Web sites the government deemed objectionable. The government later backtracked in response to a worldwide outcry, but it did not abandon the idea entirely. And during the recent unrest in Iran, government officials reportedly were able to identify some protest leaders by monitoring cell-phone, e-mail, and computer use.

Closer to home, the U.S. government sought - and often received - the telephone records of millions of people during the terrorism hysteria that dominated the national psyche in the years immediately following the 9/11 attacks.

Hackers regularly raid or hijack corporate or private computers, Web sites place "cookies" on our home PCs, companies track the sites we visit and target advertisements based on our supposed interests, and employers can watch every keystroke on every computer on every employee's desk.

The point is that the analogy of the Internet as information superhighway is not entirely accurate. Instead of an expressway on which the traffic in each direction is separated by a broad median, we should imagine our connection to the Web as a two-way street on which traffic whizzes in and out of our computers mere inches apart.

The seeds exist for science fiction to become social fact. To help prevent that, Amazon needs to do more than apologize; it needs to devise a way to protect copyrighted material that doesn't include controlling the Kindle reading devices.

It's either that or update Mr. Bradbury's classic as Fahrenheit 95, the Kindle's maximum operating temperature.



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