Few things are all bad or all good. Other comments show how Mike highlighted Amazon deleting 1984 copies across Kindles. Amazon could also have rewritten 1984 and who would have known. It was only easy to tell the book was missing.
There are trade-offs in robustness of copies to external influences and physical decay vs. ease of copying, distribution, and updating. It would be nice if there weren't, but, as Feynmann said, "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool."
Electronic copies degrade faster than paper. Since they are easy to copy, you can make new copies to new media to get around degradation. However, this takes effort and does not usually happen by default. Cloud storage promises to do this as long as someone pays for it, so reliability of copies becomes that of the cloud service. This centralization creates points of failure not distributed across independent geographic locations and people, whereas distributed physical copies that are not networked, such as paper books, do not. As long as our devices are networked, our copies are not independent unless secure (and DRM is just a form of intentional dependence). It used to be that the dominant way of distributing information, by default, created many independent (not networked) physical copies. This is no longer the case with electronic distribution. In exchange, it's easier for anyone to distribute content. Let's hope technology to enable easy distribution without giving full control of our devices over to central authorities dominates and gives us the good of easy distribution and copying without the bad. I think this is hard or impossible without truly distributed networks, like wireless mesh networks.
Before, if someone found information important enough, the first way of distribution was by word of mouth, then books, with a high barrier of entry. By default, many independent and self-sufficient (given someone has been taught to read and is not blind) physical copies would be created and distributed, often with very long decay times. Many independent robust copies not requiring other technology besides your eye balls and a brain does increase the chance for that information to survive. It's a natural trade off that these are harder to create than digital copies. Maybe that extra robustness is worth it for some information, particularly the ones groups tend to want to erase, such as history. Then again, if I'm used to the ease of ebooks, why would I bother reading & finding such copies, maybe they'd just sit unread, like much history.
I agree that if a single group could rewrite all copies of some content, it would make justice and a free society difficult, since they could delete anything that threatened them. This seems to be the idea behind some of Franzen's hesitations. Whether ebooks and general digital distribution of information may, may not, or must lead to that, Mike addresses at the end, saying these distribution technologies enable people to push back against groups trying to gain such control. He gives one example, the SOPA protest. It would be awesome to have a full set of examples of technology enabling tyranny or working against it as fuller context. Do you have something like that Mike?
Techdirt has not posted any stories submitted by Greg Nelson.