Amazon and its Kindle made the news again, this time because some users were furious that they did not get more help when their e-book units were stolen. For those who do not keep up with this technology, a Kindle's owner can buy a book or other content and have it downloaded to the unit by way of a wireless phone-like connection. Thus, each unit is identifiable to Amazon, and the firm could at least refuse to sell content to a wrongful owner of a Kindle. The Kindle would then be of little value to the user because one could read only previously, and rightfully, downloaded material. If my cell phone is stolen, the carrier is happy to turn off the phone but not to disable that unit if a new SIM card is installed, but that is because it does not expect the new “owner” to pay the bills. Amazon is accused of seeking to gain from sales of content to the new owner. Similar policies are apparently deployed by Sirius radio and by AT&T with regard to its iPhones.
Amazon says that it will help locate the missing Kindle only if it is contacted by a police officer “bearing a subpoena.” Why would this be? Would we not pay more for devices that could easily be disabled if lost or stolen, for then they would be stolen less often and of greater value to us.
I think Amazon has unstated reasons for its policy. The firm does not wish to be in the middle of squabbles about ownership. I might have sold you my Kindle, and then found your payment dishonored. A couple might split up and dispute ownership of their beloved Kindle. In general, firms do not want to be in the business of adjudicating of property rights unless they can profit from it. The price of the disabling function might be too high, because the process will be overloaded with disputes rather than plain thefts. Or at least this is a plausible explanation; I note that cellphone carriers in other countries occasionally have different policies.
There are other areas of law and business where we find similar phenomena. One of the most interesting examples is where morals are supposed to enter business calculations. Consider the situation where a kosher caterer fails to perform as promised, and essentially misappropriates a substantial deposit paid by X. X can take the caterer to court, but this is an expensive process. Instead, X appeals to the certifying authority and says, essentially, “you should deny certification to this caterer because it is a wrongdoer, and “kosher” should mean more than the technical requirements of ritual slaughter and so forth.” The certifier will normally refuse to be involved. I had reason to inquire about this recently and learned that some very strict certifiers would refuse, for instance, to certify a candy bar that had a picture of a naked person on it. The certifier finds the immodest and “wrongful” picture disqualifying even though the objection is not about the ingredients in the food. The difference is that the nudity is easily and objectively verifiable, and of course offensive to the certifier. On the other hand, the misappropriated money is disputed, and the certifier cannot easily determine the facts; it simply does not want to be in the business of adjudication.