September 7, 2009

Technological Mediation, Theft and Ownership [5:45 pm]

When one buys a device for access, who really owns what? Anger at Makers When Gadgets Go Missing (pdf)

[M]any tech companies will not disclose information about the new owners of missing devices unless a police officer calls with a search warrant. Even a request to simply shut down service — which would deter thieves by rendering their pilfered gadget useless — is typically refused.

The problem, which nobody had to deal with before smartphones and satellite radios, has reached new heights with the Kindle reader from Amazon, with its ability to download books wirelessly and store hundreds of titles on a single device.

[...] Amazon’s policy is that it will help locate a missing Kindle only if the company is contacted by a police officer bearing a subpoena. Mr. Borgese, who lives in Manhattan, questions whether hunting down a $300 e-book reader would rank as a priority for the New York Police Department.

He began to see ulterior motives when he twice sent e-mail messages to Amazon seeking an address to send a police report and got no reply.

“I finally concluded,” Mr. Borgese said, “that Amazon knew the device was being used and preferred to sell content to anyone who possessed the device, rather than assist in returning it to its rightful owner.”

[...] The complaints have left Amazon with a new public relations dilemma. In July, when Amazon remotely deleted titles from Kindles, citing copyright reasons, it was accused of heavy-handedness. If the company were to shut down a Kindle that had been erroneously reported as stolen, it might be accused of playing cop, judge and jury. Then again, it is also possible that Amazon is simply avoiding the financial burden of adjudicating claims.

Whatever the reasoning, Amazon’s policy is hardly unique.

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