For ages, reading a book was a solitary and private activity. The reader engaging the author's thoughts through words on a tangible media.When you read, how you read, whether you finished a book, were pretty much, your own business.
Borrowing a book from a lending library creates a record of what book has been borrowed by whom. Seeing the value of keeping one's choices of reading material private to preserve unrestricted use, all US states have laws protecting the identity and privacy of library users . In the old, non-digital economy, even purchased books, were initially only associated with the buyer at the point of purchase.
While this situation protected reader's privacy, it left authors, publishers, book sellers and marketers without the kind of information that would allow them to discover how their products were being used and why. In the current marketplace, where so many activities and transactions have been digitized, that old asymmetry has almost been inverted.
A Wall Street Journal article from 2012, "Your E-Book Is Reading You", describes just how far the use of digital technology has drastically eliminated most expectations of reader and purchaser privacy, in our brave new world.
The author tells us that ' "The major new players in e-book publishing—Amazon, Apple and Google—can easily track how far readers are getting in books, how long they spend reading them and which search terms they use to find books. Book apps for tablets like the iPad, Kindle Fire and Nook record how many times readers open the app and how much time they spend reading. Retailers and some publishers are beginning to sift through the data, gaining unprecedented insight into how people engage with books."
This is often done without the users permission or as a requirement to use a particular service or device. Like Amazon requires Kindle users to sign an agreement granting the company permission to store information from the device—including the last page you've read, plus your bookmarks, highlights, notes and annotations.
In the library world, this kind of data collection and mining has not gotten to such an advanced stage yet. See : "OverDrive and Sourcebooks to Launch Ambitious Ebook Data Experiment". But the imperatives of assuaging authors' and publishers' fears of library use possibly undermining their markets, will push for more data gathering through libraries and their users.
It is in this environment of growing information gathering from readers, both as purchasers and borrowers, that some state government have responded with legislation, to try to provide some of the safeguards that were taken for granted in the pre-digital economy.
A recent measure in Arizona seeks to include digital books under material protected by the state law that prohibits the disclosure of public library records. It would impose a misdemeanor charge at anyone who releases information about books or other items that a patron has requested or checked out. It just adds the new E-book format to the existing library circulation records privacy law.
In New Jersey, Assemblyman Benjie E. Wimberly , has introduced a bill, the “Reader Privacy Act”, that goes beyond libraries. His legislation would place readers and purchasers of books and electronic books ,“e-Books”, under similar protections as library records by expanding reader privacy law. He states that “Individuals should be allowed to read, shop without fear of intrusion. Just as with books you borrow at the library, your e-book preferences should also remain private.”
In California, in early 2011, Senator Yee introduced the "Reader Privacy Act of 2011" which will extend privacy protections currently in place for library records to book purchases, including e-books. It also adds requirements for disclosure of such information to government agencies, including law enforcement. Violators can be fined $500 and even more significantly : 'no evidence obtained in violation of this section shall be admissible in any civil, administrative, or other proceeding."
While state measure such as these, are significant attempts to deal with the digital world and re-assert expectations of personal privacy, the continuing development of data gathering and mining in the private sector, remains largely uncontrolled and a situation that users often just have to accept to continue using digital services.
Users can exercise a small measure of self-defense by choosing among the various online e-book providers who do have certain differences in how they conduct business. For guidance in this area check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation's, "E-Reader Privacy Chart, 2012 Edition".