Ebooks and Users' Rights: New Technology May Prove Inhospitable to Privacy

By Caldwell-Stone, Deborah | American Libraries, May-June 2012 | Go to article overview

Ebooks and Users' Rights: New Technology May Prove Inhospitable to Privacy


Caldwell-Stone, Deborah, American Libraries


Librarians defend and protect reader privacy in recognition of the strong connection between the freedom to read and the right to privacy.

The right to read freely depends upon the knowledge that what one is reading is not monitored or tracked. Protecting reader privacy ensures that library users can pursue any inquiry or read any book without fear of judgment or punishment. Both the Library Bill of Rights and the ALA Code of Ethics affirm librarians' responsibility to assure library users' privacy by keeping users' information confidential.

The current model of digital content delivery for libraries places library users' privacy at risk. Authorizing the loan of an ebook or the use of a database can communicate unique identifiers or personally identifiable information that reveals a user's identity. Databases and e-readers create records of their users' intellectual activities that can include search terms, highlighted phrases, and what pages the individuals actually read. Easily aggregated--and then associated--with a particular user, such records can be used against the reader as evidence of intent or belief, especially if the records are stored on vendors' servers, where they are subject to discovery by law enforcement.

Digital content delivery not only places user privacy at risk; it can facilitate censorship and jeopardize access.

Vendors and publishers can and do reserve the right to modify or erase ebooks and other digital content. Readers can turn on their devices to find that a particular ebook has vanished without a trace, as Kindle users did after Amazon decided to erase an edition of George Orwell's 1984 from Kindle devices after a licensing dispute. But copyright and contract are not the only reasons econtent can disappear; under the terms of service provisions contained in most ebook licenses, vendors and publishers can remove or alter texts for any reason, including a desire to avoid controversial content. One need only look to PayPal's recent refusal to handle sales for some types of erotica to understand the potential threat to the right to read and receive information.

Finally, the current models for ebook lending do not support libraries' fundamental mission to provide access to books and other materials without regard for a user's economic or social status. Use of digital content requires ownership of expensive devices, reliable broadband Internet access, and often a credit card. When library materials are available only as digital downloads to a proprietary platform, or require users to provide credit cards or establish commercial vendor accounts to prove their eligibility to access an ebook, libraries risk shutting out users who are on the wrong side of the digital divide. …

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