To the technologically savvy, switching on an e-reader is the new way to crack the spine of a novel. But does powering up a reading gadget inadvertently create another kind of open book?
Some critics are concerned that e-reader users may unwittingly expose their reading habits to big companies. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “digital books allow booksellers and libraries to collect more detailed reader information than ever before, including books browsed but not purchased, books purchased or lent, how long each page is viewed, whether a reader rereads particular pages and even the notes written in the margins.” The EFF and other critics point out the potential for this personal data to be shared with, and subsequently abused by, third parties or the government.
Critics' apprehension may seem silly in our social media-obsessed culture. After all, several popular websites are devoted to sharing reading habits. On sites such as Shelfari and Goodreads, people voluntarily divulge everything they’ve read, are reading and plan to read. Users also write their own book reviews. If millions of people are publishing their reading habits for the world to see, why should anyone be worried that a company could tell which page they’ve read more than once or which book they started but didn’t finish?
Besides, e-reader companies aren’t necessarily keeping tabs on all of the information they have access to. In 2010, the EFF acknowledged that while the Sony e-Reader can collect information about browsing the store website, it does not monitor reading after purchase. Similarly, the EFF said that when iPads collect data about reading habits, the information isn’t personally identifiable. Plus, the EFF reported, e-readers like the FBReader for Android refrain from collecting any personal data at all.
Still, the EFF said devices like the Amazon Kindle do monitor reading. In this case, the argument can be made that data is collected in order to improve users’ experience. For example, Amazon’s servers store highlights and notes written in a user’s Kindle, but that means those highlights and notes are automatically backed-up and available on any device synced with that Kindle.
There are advantages to this. Think about when a computer crashes; the information stored on it may be lost. In contrast, if a Kindle breaks, a user’s books and notes can still be accessed.
A tradeoff exists. E-reader users may sacrifice a degree of privacy in order to benefit from technology. And since the technological advantages are definite and the threat to privacy often seems like a vague possibility, it’s a trade that many consumers would deem fair.
So why would critics even bring up the concept of privacy? Does it really matter if our reading habits are being tracked?
The American Library Association points out, “Privacy is essential to the exercise of free speech, free thought, and free association.” According to ALA, when people are concerned that their reading habits may be shared with others or used against them, they may limit their search for information. Their fear of judgment could restrict what they are willing to . Therefore, the loss of privacy is also the loss of freedom.
As e-readers become increasingly popular, the way that they work needs constant reexamination. E-readers allow users easy access to lifetimes’ worth of reading material. However, if users are afraid to read freely due to questions of privacy, then the value of these vast libraries is undermined.
On Jan. 1, California’s Reader Privacy Act went into effect. This law states that court orders are required before print and electronic reading records can be shared with law enforcement, other government entities or third parties. Records can also be shared if the reader gives consent or special circumstances exist. This law is an important first step toward protecting privacy for 21st Century readers. After all, it is one thing to voluntarily share reading habits; it’s another to be spied on.
In a world dominated by social media, it may seem normal to choose a life that’s an open book. But as technology advances, we need to preserve the right to keep that book’s cover closed, too.