A Digital Dilemma: Ebooks and Users’ Rights

New technology may prove inhospitable to privacy

May 29, 2012


Last September, libraries and librarians around the country welcomed the announcement that OverDrive and Amazon had reached an agreement that would allow Kindle owners to borrow books through their public libraries. The new arrangement allowed libraries to meet a pent-up patron demand for Kindle ebook loans. But librarians and users alike learned that the deal came with some strings attached: Kindle users whose loan periods were coming to an end began to receive marketing messages from Amazon.

The messages reminded users that their loaned ebooks would soon disappear from their Kindle and asked if the Kindle owner wouldn’t want to buy the ebooks outright from Amazon. The etailer also reminded Kindle users that if they decided to purchase the borrowed ebook after it had disappeared from their Kindle, Amazon would restore it to that Kindle with all of the user’s highlights and notes intact.

Amazon’s communications with borrowers made it plain that Amazon was acquiring and keeping lots of information about library users and their reading habits and using that data to market goods to them. Inquiries revealed that while OverDrive did not acquire or pass along user information, Amazon required Kindle users to log in with their Kindle accounts to access the borrowed ebook. That information—along with the data about the Kindle customer’s use of the ebook—was, per Amazon’s terms of service, subject to Amazon’s standard commercial privacy policies.

Librarians, mindful of state confidentiality laws, library privacy policies, and the profession’s longstanding commitment to preserving library users’ privacy, moved quickly to address the privacy issue at stake. Many librarians posted new notices on their ebook platforms informing Kindle users that use of the Kindle device meant being sent away from the library’s ebook platform to Amazon’s commercial website, which did not share or use the same policies on data use or privacy as the library does. This strategy—bolted on after the fact—did not address the issue of Amazon’s collection and use of library users’ data, but it at least provided users with an opportunity to choose whether or not to share their information. The fact remains that libraries, anxious to provide users with a popular, in-demand service, did so without carefully evaluating the service’s impact on user privacy.

Ethics, library values, and digital content

The consequences of Amazon’s entry into public and school library ebook lending highlights the ethical dilemmas librarians encounter as libraries add digital content to their collections. As the content and services provided by libraries become more technologically sophisticated, they facilitate and create opportunities for governments, corporations, and individuals to control access to published content and track users’ reading and research habits.

In addition, the devices, platforms, and technologies used to provide digital content to library users are often operated and maintained by commercial vendors who frequently do not share librarians’ commitment to the profession’s core values of intellectual freedom, privacy, and access (indeed, the vendors’ revenues are often tied to exploiting user-behavior data and placing limits on access). Vendors then negotiate agreements with digital-content publishers, distributors, and service providers that include binding terms of service. These terms of service govern users’ rights and define the rules that control what can and cannot be done with the ebook or other digital content.

Thus, if the license that governs the library’s loan of the ebook requires the library to track and retain user data associated with a particular ebook and disclose that information to the vendor, the library is obligated to track, retain, and disclose that information, even though such terms conflict with professional ethics and intellectual freedom principles that call on librarians to refrain from collecting, retaining, or disclosing library users’ information to third parties.

Sacrificing privacy and access for convenience?

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 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 content 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.

Proactive steps to protect users’ rights

As libraries move to include ebooks and other digital content in their collections, the profession must take proactive steps to assure that the addition of digital content does not compromise professional values, which call on libraries to protect user privacy, oppose censorship, and ensure access, no matter the status, age, or income of the user.

Accomplishing these goals within the existing ecology of ebooks, databases, and online journals will mean challenging the status quo and standing up for users’ rights while negotiating and working with vendors, legislators, and government agencies. It will also mean slowing down the move to digital content until we can take time to identify the methods and processes that will assure that the profession’s core values are respected and protected when libraries provide access to digital content.

Some actions to take include:

  • Undertaking a thorough examination of the technologies, platforms, and agreements that control the delivery of digital content to identify problematic features and inform changes in library policy and practice;
  • Updating existing professional standards and policy statements to ensure that they address new technologies and digital content;
  • Developing professional guidelines, tool kits, and FAQs that will help librarians in the field assess vendor agreements and develop and propose alternative agreements to protect user rights;
  • Committing to protect user rights when entering into agreements with vendors;
  • Working with vendors and content providers to assure that professional values are “baked in” to the technologies and platforms that deliver digital content to library users; and
  • Working with legislators, regulators, and library users to ensure that the laws that protect against censorship and preserve reader privacy fully apply to digital content.

DEBORAH CALDWELL-STONE is deputy director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.



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