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Amazon Changes Download Policies: DRM Creep or Privacy Nightmare?

Yes, the title is a bit overblown, but I figure that’s how the guys at Gawker make the big bucks. So…

I bought two MP3s today, maybe a half an hour apart. I usually buy music from Amazon, a loyalty I’ve had since they started offering MP3s in 2007 due to their professed commitment to DRM-free music, something that the market hadn’t yet forced iTunes to understand. And I’ve always been happy with ease of purchases, etc.

Today, though, when I was downloading Rose Royce’s classic “Ooh Boy,” something happened that I’d never seen before: it prompted me to “Authorize a device” to download my music onto. I did so with trepidation, thinking that it sounded like they were institute some sort of Digital Rights Management. I tweeted immediately after:

Not much later, I checked out a video on Facebook by Brother Ali, who a friend described as “the greatest blind albino rapper of all time.” (And seriously, dude’s talented! Check him out!) I immediately wanted to own that track. So I went over to buy it on Amazon. I was forced to go through yet another re-install of the Amazon MP3 Downloader. Then, when I clicked on “download your music,” I had yet another “authorize device” script pop up. I selected my computer and… it refused to accept that, as I had already authorized a device with that name.

At that point, I was frustrated and just wanted my music. So I went to the support page and started a chat with a customer support person at Amazon named Sanjit. Below is a partial transcript of my interaction with Sanjit. Emphases are mine, and added for easy skimming:

Sanjit:
I am really sorry that you are not able to download the songs. May I have the order number which you want to download?

Me:
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
I was able to download the Rose Royce song
And now I can’t download the Brother Ali song
Even though they’re in the same order.

Sanjit:
I am sorry for this I’ve re-sent your purchase to Amazon Cloud Player (http://www.amazon.com/cloudplayer) where you can try the download again.

Me:
Um.
You see, I have the Amazon MP3 downloader so I don’t have to download from the cloud player.
Is going to the cloud player a new, extra step to make the process less convenient?

Sanjit:
I understand your concern. But our procedure for MP3 download has been changed. We are not able to send your songs directly to downwloader. We can send it to cloud player where you can launch your downloader as well.

I was confused at this point, and pushed him to explain whether the “authorized device” issue was due to some sort of DRM:

Me:
Are you now using DRM on your songs?

Sanjit:
I am sorry. The MP3 files you purchase from Amazon.com contain no digital rights management (DRM) restrictions, are provided in an industry standard MP3 format, and should be compatible with most systems capable of reading MP3 audio files.

Me:
Okay, so why do I have to authorize a device?
If I’m an Amazon customer, shouldn’t I be able to download music I pay for?
You don’t limit me to ten mailing addresses for my books.

Sanjit:
The files you purchase from the Amazon MP3 Store are free of any digital rights management software to allow you more freedom with managing your music library. It seems that download is not working properly. I would request you to please try to uninstall your downloader and reinstall it once.

Me:
The download worked once I went into the cloud player.
But you’re evading my question.
Why do I have to authorize my device?
Surely, if Amazon has instituted a new policy on this, they have a boxed answer ready for people who are confused or upset by it, because it does seem suggestive of DRM.
If the files are DRM-free, I can move them from device to device. So why am I limited to downloading to only 10 devices?
I’m assuming there has now been a script change for you guys indicating that if I ask this question, you should answer in a certain way. I’m just curious what Amazon’s official response is, here.
Sanjit? You still there bro?

Sanjit:
yes.
Tad, there is no restriction to use the songs on different devices. You can use downloaded songs on multiple device. However, Amazon Cloud Drive and Amazon Cloud Player allow access from up to 10 devices. This includes mobile devices, different computers, and different browsers on the same computer.
The device limit can be reached if your web browser cookies are deleted or if your browser is set to automatically delete cookies.

After that, I thanked him for his help, and told him I would take what he has told me under advisement as I consider whether I want to continue to use Amazon as my MP3 retailer.

I know that trying to gauge the direction and strategy of a tech corporation from the position of a lowly customer is something akin to Kremlinology or reading tea leaves. That said, it can also be quite fun, which is why the Apple fan boards are always so active.

What is Amazon heading toward with this new “user authorization” protocol? Personally, I can think of three possibilities:

  1. It was a compromise negotiated with music labels for the cloud player. Nothing will change as far as Amazon’s general policies on MP3 DRM, and maybe they’ll be able to bring in artists or labels who had been previously adverse to the cloud player.
  2. It’s a back door to DRM. Sure, Amazon won a lot of customers by going DRM-free, and they got to flex a little corporate muscle at Apple and force them to reverse course. They’re both retailers, of course they want to prove market influence, especially coming out of the gate. But DRM has been good to Amazon. They have the most popular and least open reading device in the Kindle. The DRM on their video downloads is so tight that Mac and Linux users can only stream video they’ve purchased. This could be step one of a slow creep toward DRM– because DRM makes labels happy and retailers happy, too, by forcing repeated purchases of the same file. If they do it slowly and quietly, maybe consumers won’t raise a ruckus, as they’re now locked in by years of use and the synergy of things like the Kindle Fire and Amazon Prime.
  3. DRM is a Red Herring. This is actually all about what Sanjit said about cookies.  Rich consumer user data is cash in the bank for retailers and marketers. And Amazon is both. Is it possible that really this just an annoyance to keep users from flushing cookies from Amazon? Is user data Amazon’s Next Big Thing? It seems to be what everyone’s banking on with Facebook. Get people to always be at least partially on your site, and you get rich minable data on your customers that they would never volunteer.

Of these, I’m hopeful that it’s number one, afraid it’s number two, and number three seems like it’s reaching a bit.

I’m curious, though, if anyone else has any theories as to the reasons for this change? Or if anyone might be able to point me to a source at Amazon that can make it clearer?