Law in the Internet Society

E-book Privacy and the Fight for Freedom of Thought

-- By AnnaScott - 01 Apr 2013

E-book privacy issues have hit a nerve with many consumers. Some who barely blink when told that Google is reading all of their emails will throw a fit when they realize that their reading habits are being tracked, monitored, and analyzed by their e-book distributor. What is it about this kind of monitoring that makes people more upset than other kinds, which are arguably more invasive? What can we learn from it, and how can we channel that indignation and energy into the larger fight for freedom of thought in the 21st century and beyond?

How did we establish the premise, that this is of more concern than email monitoring to "many" consumers?

One argument is that e-book monitoring upsets people because it is a new frontier in government and corporate spying. That is, Google and/or the government reading your email is similar in kind to intercepting letters, tapping your phone, or eavesdropping on a conversation – invasive to be sure, but all things that governments already do to some degree -- while Amazon and/or the government knowing what you’re reading, what you’re highlighting, where you’re writing notes, what chapters you’re re-reading – that is an invasion of a new and more personal kind, an eavesdropping on your very thoughts.

While the other communications aren't "very thoughts"?

However, in a broad historical sense this is not a new frontier, but is in fact part of a long history of institutional attack on freedom of thought. Professor Moglen discussed this in his keynote speech at re:publica 2012 in Berlin: institutions, particularly and most powerfully the Catholic church during the 17th and 18th centuries, have long been obsessively focused on surveillance of conduct and being able to predict and punish unorthodox thought. Historically, the focus was on censoring and controlling access to books and access to avenues of publishing as a way to control freedom; today, we can access millions of books with the click of a mouse. But now, instead of the blunt instrument of limiting access via censorship,* institutions can use the much more powerfully subtle tools of data collection and analysis to predict and police unorthodox thought. The confessional booth is no longer a once-a-week operation – it’s open twenty-four hours a day; the more you take advantage of all this access, the louder and more detailed your confession is, and the smarter the institution’s algorithms about human thought become.

This is a very broad historical sense, indeed; it seems rather broad even to me. But I'm not sure in what way it differs, except in breadth, from what I said. Perhaps it would be clearer to leave me to say what I say, and then to add to it without further paraphrase.

Because of this history of policing freedom of thought via limiting access to books, and because the fight for freedom of thought has thus focused strongly (and, for centuries, accurately) on demanding increased access to knowledge and knowledge sharing, the average citizen is not primed to recognize the way freedom of thought will be policed in the future.

The relationship between "the average citizen" and "the future" on other subjects is different? He or she is more primed?

People have access to more writing, and to more avenues of publishing their writing, than ever before – and since for so long more access meant more freedom, it is harder to for us to recognize the new shapes that threats to our freedom are taking. That is why it is heartening to see the visceral reaction many people have to the idea of e-book monitoring – here, at least, is a kind of corporate surveillance and data collection that many people immediately recognize and fear as a threat to freedom, even if they do not recognize its place in the long history of institutional surveillance and control.

The fact that people are having trouble recognizing the ways that the new data-driven regime can police freedom of thought is especially troubling because of the urgency of intervening in the building of this new regime. In the same keynote address (and in other writings and class discussions) Professor Moglen emphasizes this urgency: “The fate of freedom of thought will depend on the neuro-anatomy” of the 21st century network, which is being built today. It is in this generation that we are institutionalizing basic principles of information flow that will be the foundation of the network. So far, as we discussed at length in class, much of the network is being built with the assumption that you can be tracked everywhere. (For example, millions have opted into having Facebook follow them around the internet, for the convenience of being able to easily recommend this or that article to their Friends.)

That is why those that recognize the threat to freedom that constant surveillance and data collection poses should capitalize on this particularly strong emotional response to e-book monitoring. The anger over Amazon’s acquisition of the popular online book discussion site Goodreads further illustrates the public’s particularly emotional response to the corporate sharing of their reading habits. Many Goodreads users are concerned about the data that Amazon is acquiring through the deal. When asked whether the treasure trove of Goodreads data would be shared with its new owner, Goodreads CEO answered in frighteningly vague fashion: “Goodreads is or will be a wholly owned subsidiary of Amazon, so on one level, yes. Are things going to happen in the background without customers understanding it? I think the answer to that is no.” (In what I found to be an ominous Asimov reference, Amazon’s VP of Kindle Content said in the same interview about the acquisition: “our mentality here is to first do no harm”.) It is easy to fault Goodreads users – why voluntarily put all of that data on the internet in the first place? – but a more optimistic view is to see this event as a wake-up call for many, who are now (finally) realizing that they have very little control over what happens to data once it’s collected.

But active readers are a small proportion of Americans. Are we talking about people whose feelings you particularly share, not necessarily about people in general?

Some concrete examples of channeling this book-inspired anger and awareness? Major legislation that is headlined and “sold” as protecting the freedom to read what you want in private, but which has baked into it extensive protections for more “boring” kinds of data surveillance. Amicus briefs for court cases involving e-book privacy which urge judges to adopt broader precedent that can be applied to other forms of data tracking. More generally, advocacy groups taking advantage of press about e-book privacy to highlight the connections to related kinds of data privacy.

*Of course, censorship is still an available tool; a book can now be deleted from millions of personal e-libraries at a moment’s notice, as in the now infamous example of Amazon wiping copies of 1984 and Animal Farm from customers’ devices.

Is this a conclusion?


Webs Webs

r3 - 23 Aug 2014 - 19:33:50 - EbenMoglen
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