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Recently, Netflix announced that its physical DVD rentals business will be closing its doors later this year. While for some this is little more than a moment of whistful nostalgia (and most weren’t even aware it was still running) it’s a good opportunity to have a conversation about ownership of digital media.

There’s a well known, and false, statement that once something’s on the internet it’s there forever. While this is a useful warning about oversharing, it masks a problem with our constant shift towards digital content and who owns it.

A few days ago I spent some time at the London Book Fair, enjoying the sight of immutable physical copies of information everywhere. Alongside those were stands promoting digital distribution services, e-books, and audiobooks, of all kinds. While it’s hard to overstate the convenience of these digital platforms they carry a danger that’s important.

Bear with me on this

Towards the end of 2022 fans of the animated series Final Space were upset (putting it mildly) to discover that the series wouldn’t be continuing after its third season. Worse was the reveal that, as part of a tax write-off by the rights holder, it would no longer be available to fans. What struck me was that the third season had never been burned to any physical media – no boxed sets, no VHS, it only existed in the digital realm.

Final Space - pretty much being erased from reality as a tax write-off

Final Space – pretty much being erased from reality as a tax write-off

Fans who had ‘bought’ Final Space from Amazon discovered it was simply no longer available to them. A few streaming services still carry it and will do until their licensing agreements expire, but after that, it will simply disappear as if it never was – aside from anyone who had pirated their own copies locally.

There’s another example. An online bookseller called Book Depository which offered free shipping over most of the world has been shut down by Amazon. Again, because it only brings in a small amount of revenue and therefore why should people be able to receive immutable copies of materials that they could get in a digitally-controllable fashion?

We Need to Talk About Ownership

This is a conversation that pops up now and then before fading away as other concerns come up, but it’s one we need to be having. Any information stored digitally can be edited, it can be changed. If someone other than you can edit your copy of a book, it says something fundamental about ownership – and it isn’t something good.

Essentially what Amazon did when they wiped copies of 1984 (and Animal Farm) was to take every copy of that version, and burn them to ash. That included copies where people had made their own notes (they were sued, successfully, over this). While there haven’t been any further headline incidents, nor any others that are quite so beautifully appropriate, there have been plentiful examples of post-publication edits made and pushed out without any control by those who had ‘bought’ copies.

"Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy." - George Orwell, 1984

“Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy.” – George Orwell, 1984

There’s no incentive for distribution platforms to change this. I spoke to a number of them at the LBF and the answer was unilaterally (and fairly) that it was down to the publishers to notify them and they would act accordingly. There’s also no incentive for publishers to even talk about this – recalls of physical media are rare, but happen, and this is usually the analogy that’s used.

The difference is important though. If a publisher recalls a physical book, and I have a copy, I can choose whether to hand it over for a refund or replacement. I own it in a way that just doesn’t apply to the digital version. If I choose to keep it then the publisher can’t simply send undercover agents into my house to make the edit – I have an immutable record of the mistake that was made, or more importantly of the information that was erased.

When we shift to digital versions of everything, and ‘buying’ means nothing more than renting access from a distributor for an undefined period of time, everything becomes ephemeral. That ephemerality, that ability to change recorded information with no trace or notification, is exactly what Orwell’s 1984 warns us about.

The great digital content providing machine has a huge profit motive to absorb and control, well, everything.

The great digital content providing machine has a huge profit motive to absorb and control, well, everything.

A Solution?

I’m not a huge fan of the way that blockchain technologies are touted as a solution to every problem that arises. Generally, I dislike the way it’s thrown around for every use case when there are already much better solutions in place. With this issue, unusually for me, I think there might be a genuine use. It’s not one I can ever see emerging outside of certain small, special interest groups, because there’s no commercial incentive for it but I can hope.

As we give up more and more ownership of instances of information in favor of convenience, allowing our information and history to become ephemeral and placing it under the control of private entities, we really need to be having these conversations. Without them, we end up right back in Orwell’s 1984, where history and past records become subject entirely to the whims of entities who have shown repeatedly that any considerations of information integrity, any thoughts of moral accountability, come well below the pursuit of profit.

This article was originally published by James Bore on Hackernoon.


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