Digital Revision and Online

July 18, 2009

Amazon has whipped up a cloud computing thunderstorm. You can tackle this story by entering the word “Kindle” in almost any news search system. One interesting post is MG Giegler’s article for TechCrunch, “Amazon, Why Don’t You Come in Our Houses and Burn Our Books Too?” For me, the key passage was:

This remote deletion issue is an increasingly interesting one. Last year, Apple CEO Steve Jobs confirmed that the company has a remote “kill switch” to remove apps from your device if it thinks that is necessary. To the best of my knowledge, they have yet to use such functionality, and would only do so if there was a malicious app out there that was actually causing harm to iPhones. They have not even used it to kill some poor taste apps that were quickly removed from the App Store, like Baby Shaker.

The addled goose wants to remain above the fray. The core issues from his perspective are different. For instance, as online services roll up via buy outs and the failure of weaker competitive services, a “natural monopoly” emerges. One can see this in the 1980s in the growth of Dialog Information Services and LexisNexis as the big dogs in online search. Over time, options emerged and now there are a handful of “go to” services. As these big dogs respond to challenges and issues, the Amazon deletion event becomes more visible. In my opinion what’s at work is an organization that makes a situational decision and then discovers that its “natural monopoly position” creates unanticipated problems. The ability of some online services to make informed decisions increases after an event such as deleting information. The deletion may be nothing more than a pointer to an object. Metadata and its persistence are more important in some cases than the digital content itself.

The second issue is the increasing awareness users and customers have about utility type services. The customer sees the utility as benign, maybe making decisions in favor of the individual user. The Kindle deletion scenario makes clear that paying customers are not the concern of the organization. I know that the ripples from the deletion of content will not subside quickly. A single firm’s decision becomes a policy issue that is broader than the company’s business decision.

Now shift gears from digital objects that one can find on such sites as Project Gutenberg in Australia to other content. When online services consolidate, the likelihood that digital revisionism will become more widespread seems a likely outcome to me. Policy decisions in commercial entities pivot on money. The policy, therefore, does not consider an individual user.

I know that most government agencies don’t worry about me, paddling around my duck pond. The impact of a decision taken by an online organization seems to send shock waves that may not be on the radar of corporate executives.

The issue, in my opinion, is the blurring of a commercial entity’s decision made for its benefit with broader public policy issues. What happens when an online service becomes a virtual monopoly. Who will regulate the entity? Legal eagles will flock to this issue, but digital revisionism is not new. Digital revisionism now gains importance as more people rely on a commercial entity to deliver a utility service.

Stephen Arnold, July 18. 2009


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