After listening to a story on All Things Considered about Amazon pulling copies of George Orwell’s 1984 off of its Kindles this past week, I pondered what this might mean for ownership of digital electronic books and further down the line how this would affect personal freedoms and censorship.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the story, last week Amazon pulled copies of 1984 off of users’ Kindles without warning. Kindles are networked, and connect with Amazon’s servers on a regular basis. For this reason, Amazon was easily able to access users Kindles to remove the files.

Along with the irony of the whole ordeal (Big Brother is watching!) comes the fact that you can read the whole book for free on George Orwell’s official site.

The Implications for Education

As an educator, and a lover of formerly banned books, I hope that we learn from this and reflect on the implications it has for educators, students and personal freedom in general. I have seen many discussions on Twitter and in the blogosphere about using Kindles and other such electronic reading devices in the classroom as an alternative to textbooks. Many in the education field believe that using these devices is not only environmentally friendly, but also allows for easy updates as publishers release new editions or districts change textbooks.

I agree that the use of paper textbooks costs a lot of money and can be very wasteful. In Philadelphia we get a new set of curriculum materials with every new administration. This means that not only are the millions of dollars spent on buying textbooks wasted, but closets are filled with unused books. My school is 101 years old, and it is easy to find textbooks lying around with publication dates that are older than I am. You can also find textbooks or guided reading books published within the last few years that sit unused or forgotten because they are no longer aligned with the District’s Core Curriculum.
For an idea of how much it costs to furnish a classroom with textbooks:

While the use of electronic readers will save trees and possibly save districts money if they can ‘upgrade’ to a new version of a text without having to repurchase the edition, I still don’t see how a Kindle is any better than a Netbook computer. This, however, is a whole other conversation in itself!
Ownership & DRM
Most eBooks require some kind of electronic reader or special software to open the file, and many are protected by Digital Rights Management to protect the copyright of the books/publications. For this reason, there has been much discussion about ownership of eBooks. If you can’t always (legally) download the file to your computer/PDA/Kindle, etc… and share it with your friends or open it on multiple computers, do you really own it?
Which brings us back to censorship.
If Amazon can take a book off of its customers’ Kindles so easily, what will the future of literature and publishing look like? As we move more toward cloud computing, with much if not most of our files and information stored online, should we worry about “Big Brother?” Are we jeopardizing our personal freedom and privacy by allowing big companies to host our important files as well as things we have purchased?
While I would like to believe that we are way past the days of banned books, the world will never rid itself of those who feel that certain topics, themes and words are not appropriate for our children. Should all of the textbooks and required reading texts in a school be accessed as eBooks, then districts can easily remove the book from use without having to collect books from classrooms and without discussing it with anyone first.
Moving Forward
We should use this event as a starting point for the discussion of the protection of our personal freedom and privacy. Hopefully this will also motivate consumers to ask companies like Amazon to add a clause to their Conditions of Use about ownership of files that have been downloaded from the site.

While Amazon was legally allowed to pull the content according to its policies under “Your Account,” that does not mean that it made the right decision. This rash move did, however, open our eyes to the reality that there is no clause for ownership of downloaded files with DRM. As a result of consumer complaints, Apple began to offer DRM free files (for a slightly higher price) to its customers. Hopefully consumers will do the same with Amazon and its sellers.
For more on textbook-free classrooms, Kindles in the classroom and censorship:


  1. keepingkidsfirst


    Definitely a thought provoking post. Will be interested in continuing to follow this topic and the discussion that it creates!

  2. Matt Guthrie


    I agree with keepingkidsfirst that this is definitely thought provoking. In our excitement to adopt emerging technologies, we often forget their dark sides or other unintended consequences. As much as I love the services that Google offers, I seem to be a rare oddity when I ask others why Google is not considered the Great Satan the way that Microsoft was/is. Most people respond with "Google never did it covertly." So, if Hitler had told us up front what he was going to do it would have been ok? Do we really want one entity controlling the majority of content available to the world?That's straying from the point. Altering a popular statement for this situation, freedom isn't free, regardless of marketplace forces. Someone will always be able to control the flow of information. In our current marketplace, or future marketplace for that matter, how do we ensure that content remains free and accessible?With regards to schools, censorship takes place every day. In shows up in minor forms called standard courses of study or pacing guides, in stronger forms called approved textbook adoption lists, and in even stronger forms call internet filters. All are put in place with good intent and logical purpose stated up front. I'm certainly not saying any of these are bad things, but as with anything, something good can always be used by someone who wants to do something bad.Personally, I'd like to see the textbook put on the back shelf as an "Oh, we've also got these things if you need them" whether they are digital or analog. Teach students how to learn, not content. If we do, their thirst for knowledge will cause them to rise up and protest censorship. I received a note today from a student I had 15 years ago that confirms that belief.

  3. mshertz


    Thanks, Kelly for starting the discussion!Matt, it is a little scary when we start to realize that we have limited control over these things. It's a predicament b/c we want and love these tools so much, but there is a price to pay for them!I agree that textbooks are already highly censored before they come in the classroom. My fear would be that this would happen not just with textbooks, but with all digital books in general that are used in the classroom, including novels.How great, Matt, that you are still in touch with a student you had 15 years ago!Thanks guys for stopping by!

  4. ShellTerrell


    Great post! I like the spreadsheet showing the cost savings of switching to ebooks. Moreover, publishers would be able to easily create updates on e-books versus textbooks. The environmental savings as well make this a great alternative.

  5. Jason Renshaw


    Excellent post, dealing with what I feel will become an issue of ever increasing relevance and importance! Bob Stein (a founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book) is doing an interview with me at the moment, and some of the issues are related to the ones here. If you'd like to check it out or leave a comment or question for Bob, please go to: Thanks again for an excellent post!~ Jason

  6. Sam Grumont


    A great thought provoking post.I hadn't heard about Amazon pulling copies of 1984 off its Kindles.In the past I have used articles about censorship of books in American schools with my students. It seemed counterintuitive to them – the land of the free and all that – censoring books that we freely use in class in Australia.

  7. mshertz


    Sam,Amazon didn't pull the book off the Kindles for censorship purposes, but the fact that they were able to do this so easily is what scares me. In the US we have groups of people who want Creationism, not Evolution taught in schools (or for there to be a mixture of both) and they want textbooks that teach pure Evolution taken out of the classroom. Oftentimes, parents may also feel that a certain book is inappropriate (i.e. Huck Finn because of the use of the word 'nigger') and want the school to remove it from the reading list. With eBooks, this could be done much more easily and without the necessary discussion of WHY a book is being taken off the list.As far as 'the land of the free,' remember, we were founded by Puritans, and you were all once British prisoners! It makes sense you guys would be a little more laid back :-)Thanks for stopping by the blog all the way from Australia!

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