Law in the Internet Society
Alexandra Alter’s article in the Wall Street Journal, “Your E-book is Reading You,” was one of the more illuminating, and (in a sense) encouraging articles I came across throughout our course. The article highlighted one of the common themes of our course: the extent to which your online behavior (especially the behavior you did not deliberately publicize and may have assumed was ‘private’) can be accessed by agencies attempting to persecute or to profit from you. The concept of collecting data about digital reading behavior is, I suppose, a very logical extension of many of the data mining practices we have encountered in this course. Nonetheless, while this practice may not, in principle, be any more a violation of privacy than the collection (and distribution and subsequent use) of online behavior data in other contexts (such as shopping or Facebook), some aspect of the nature of reading lead me (and evidently some privacy advocates) to find this practice particularly intrusive.

One privacy advocate (Cindy Cohn, Legal Director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation) is quoted as saying “There's a societal ideal that what you read is nobody else's business.” Perhaps this notion resonates with and is shared by a greater percentage of the public than are concerns about electronic privacy in other contexts. Perhaps the fact that everyone in this country has grown up with reading but a minority of it has grown up with Facebook is driving the heightened and enthusiastic resistance in this area. It may be that consumers have long viewed reading (and underlining, and rereading, and note-taking in margins) as a uniquely and intensely personal activity in which they could escape and reflect without fear of anyone else peering in. For one reason or another, the practice of passively collecting data about consumers’ digital reading behavior has produced a relatively swift (and somewhat successful) response from what the article refers to as the “privacy watchdog” community. The article provides that in 2012, California enacted the “Reader Privacy Act, a piece of legislation that requires law enforcement groups to get a court order before they can access information from digital booksellers revealing someone’s digital reading behavior. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has taken a leading role in pushing legislation to limit access of law enforcement to digital reading information. They, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, are encouraging other states to adopt legislation similar to the “Reader Privacy Act.”

The article’s summary of the stance taken by digital booksellers on this issue is less than comforting, especially given some of the trends we have discussed in this course. The article asserts that Copia, a “digital reading platform,” “aggregates the data, so that individual users aren’t identifiable,” and then gives that information to publishers. The data collected by Barnes & Noble with respect to user activity on its Nook electronic reader “focuses on groups of readers, not individuals,” says Alter. Amazon spokeswoman Kinley Pearsall was quick to underscore the impersonal nature of the data collected with respect to reading behavior on Amazon’s Kindle: “We think of it as the collective intelligence of all the people reading on Kindle.”

These characterizations and assurances strike me as fairly hollow given the lessons I have gleaned from our class. Once the data exists, little (other than legislation like that mentioned above) is likely to stand in the way of a law enforcement agency or profit-hungry publisher from accessing an individual’s digital reading behavior and using it to their advantage. Vague assurances of the data’s intended uses should not satisfy any informed consumer. As the article notes, “Amazon declined to comment on how it analyzes and uses the Kindle data it gathers.”

Alter quotes a “cyber-security expert” as surmising, “there are a gazillion things that we read that we want to read in private." For this or whatever reason, the privacy invasions committed by digital booksellers, while not in principle unique, have quickly drawn concerted and well publicized opposition. I hope that the enthusiasm for privacy in this context results in a widened understanding (amongst those currently uninformed) that similar violations are occurring across a span of other contexts and in a surge in active support for electronic privacy in general.

Here the effort seems explicitly not to go beyond the depth of insight assembled out of the usual suspects by a newspaper reporter. An e-book is nothing but a small file on the Net. The distribution oligopoly called book publishing, or book retailing, is over. How fast is the only question. Owned endpoint devices are ridiculous too, and aren't going to survive. So what is the real subject? Surveilled reading. And the real solution? Private sharing. Another draft could actually get a little under the froth on the surface, to see where the technologies and the legalities really go.

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r3 - 23 Aug 2014 - 19:33:51 - EbenMoglen
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