Librarians Weigh Kindle Ebook Lending against Reader Privacy

October 19, 2011

The library world was thrilled at the September 21 announcement that library vendor OverDrive had enabled its library customers to loan the ebooks they’d licensed from OverDrive to patrons with Kindle e-readers—provided that the ebooks were in Kindle-maker Amazon’s sales inventory. Since then, examination of the fine print between OverDrive and Amazon has caused ethical concerns to be raised in several arenas of library punditry, as American Libraries E-Content blogger Christopher Harris has summarized. Among those concerns is a perceived incursion on patron confidentiality because Kindle ebook borrowers must sync their e-readers to their Amazon accounts in order to receive the borrowed item.

With the October 2 enactment of California’s Reader Privacy Act, confidentiality seemed to gain an additional toehold. Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Reader Privacy Act extends, as of January 1, 2012, the confidentiality afforded to library patron’s reading records into the for-profit world of booksellers. It specifically prohibits (PDF file) a commercial provider of a book service “from disclosing, or being compelled to disclose, any personal information relating to a user of the book service [unless] a court order has been issued.” Fines of $500 are mandated for every unauthorized release of a book customer’s personally identifiable information to a third party.

Librarian in Black blogger Sarah Houghton believes (YouTube video, includes language NSFW) that the Reader Privacy Act might even make it illegal for California libraries to loan Kindle ebooks through OverDrive. “I’m fairly certain it’s a fairly gray area that Amazon and OverDrive are in because Amazon is keeping data on what our customers are borrowing and they’re not really supposed to,” she said. “So, according to this bill, [a California library] might be violating state law simply by putting information out there to people in a format that works with their Kindle.” Emphasizing that patrons are redirected to Amazon in order to download the ebook they are borrowing, Houghton noted, “Many libraries have a rule that we cannot endorse companies or promote a particular product or service. And with one fell swoop, many of us are doing that through this Kindle lending program that we have through OverDrive.”

In an October 4 post to the OverDrive blog, Lead Library Advocate Lindsey Levinsohn offered reassurances that the firm “does not collect or maintain any personal information” about visitors to its library clients’ websites. However, Levinsohn continued, the third-party applications and fulfillment services with which OverDrive contracts “may require visitors to register using an email address.” Emphasizing that “the visitor’s name, address and other identifying information are not required,” Levinsohn suggested, “Registration can be accomplished anonymously (e.g. using a valid email address that does not require other identifiable information). Patrons who wish to read on Kindle, for example, may find it convenient to use their existing Amazon account information, but it is not required.”

Commenter Ben Steinberg disagreed: “Although it’s possible to create an email address and Amazon account solely for the purpose of using Overdrive ebooks on the Kindle or a Kindle app, it doesn’t constitute anonymity: if you already own a Kindle, Amazon knows who you are.”