Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Privacy, ownership, and the e-book aesthetic

Here’s a story of mine in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the shift in ownership and privacy risks associated with the e-book aesthetic. I paste it in below.


When the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger spoke at Northwestern University in Qatar last November, he made observations about Doha's urban scene: how, for example, it is unsympathetic to pedestrian traffic and a lively community vibe. But then Goldberger did something that all guest speakers should try to do, namely, offer a durable point that applies to just about anywhere.

Architecture, he said, has both form and symbolism, and it is the role of the critic to look at buildings—small or massive—as they unavoidably connect to culture, politics, social mores, and, of course, money. This symbolism approach works nicely with the skyline or housing projects of any city. But it also applies to most, if not all, popular products of human inventiveness—including devices that are becoming the standard hardware of our professional and intellectual lives: e-readers.

Last year, said that its sales of e-books outstripped its sales of bound books (hardcover and paperback). Since that watershed moment, news-media stories about the book industry—in outlets from The Atlantic to Al Jazeera English—have reported similar news: sharp drops in bound-book sales and sharper increases in the e-book trade. If my friends in the publishing business are correct, and if what Jeffery Cole, director of the Center for the Digital Future, recently told me proves to be the case, bound books will eventually shrink to boutique status, as the mood and means to digitize human scholarship, creativity, and fluff accelerate—supported by readers prepared to accept the shift and by business models that are becoming more efficient.

Since it's plausible, if not likely, that e-books will become dominant, it's a good idea to consider issues that seem to be getting lost in the transition. What exactly do we "own" when we buy an e-book, and what privacy are we willing to sacrifice in the names of speed and convenience?
A bound book is easy to figure out—we buy it; we own it. It takes up space and has mass. We can sell it to a used bookstore or offer it as a gift without complication. And no one owns the proprietary rights to the ink-on-page formula. But the e-book is a different case altogether. What we purchase is not a book, but a license to read its graphic image on a screen, supported by proprietary technology. While in most cases the license to read a given book in electronic form will extend into perpetuity—and most people do not question that—it's useful to know that this is not a guarantee.

"A lot of things that we used to own, we now lease or rent, according to the terms of whoever is renting them to us," Cindy Cohn, the legal director of Electronic Frontier Foundation, told me in an interview via Skype. "That's a huge shift. You can use [a bound book] as a doorstop, you can give it to someone, you can read out loud from it, and you could do all sorts of things. But when you rent an e-book—when you license an e-book—you don't own that copy. And it is subject to whatever terms are in the terms of service, and if the terms say that they can take it back any time, then they can take it back any time." (If documentation is at all a measure of complication, then compare a receipt from a bookstore to a license agreement of, say, Amazon.)

If this sounds a bit Orwellian, then consider a metaphor handed to us in July 2009, when Amazon, with no notice, yanked from thousands of Kindle e-readers George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, a satire about Big Brother's invasions of privacy and sanctimonious power to make unfavorable news stories vanish. Apparently the book was made available on Amazon without proper licensing rights. Amazon apologized and promised never to make books vanish like that again. But just last month, it removed nearly 5,000 e-books from its site in a contract dispute with one of the country's largest book distributors. Whether or not there were good reasons behind those moves, one reality remains unchanged: The capacity to remove books from consumers' devices will most likely never be disabled.

Obviously it would be terrible business practice for e-book vendors to get into the habit of recalling books. It would damage the whole idea of e-books and give new life to print publishing. But good business strategy doesn't necessarily make for good legal protections. Nor does it assuage concerns about the shift in what it means now to "own" a book and the consequential enabling of, for example, censorship. E-readers become "a much easier [censorship] tool to use, and I think the temptation to use it goes up," Cohn said.

As for privacy, information about what we download into our e-readers—which is, to a good degree, a pattern of our reading and intellectual interests—becomes held in corporate care, used internally for a given vendor's product recommendations to its customers. The passages of a given book that we highlight are knowable, and even the data of the pages we turn and when we turn them can be stored and potentially subject to warrants and subpoenas.

That may not be of great concern to people who take comfort in the fact that they are doing nothing illicit in their reading habits. But the principle of privacy, as a core human value, is not tethered to what is licit or illicit. There's a longstanding bond between intellectual expansion and privacy—between freedom of thought and the ability to read what no one knows you're reading.

It's possible that these privacy issues will be resolved to everyone's satisfaction, but the history of privacy in the last decade is not reassuring. Large retailers, for example, are becoming more sophisticated at gathering details about the life habits of consumers, as Charles Duhigg reminds us in his recent New York Times Magazine piece "How Companies Learn Your Secrets."

Technology is and has been an enabler of all sorts, much of it beneficial and even life-saving. But as far as policy is concerned, it is essentially neutral (if we ignore theories about "technological determinism"). As Cindy Cohn reminded me, there's nothing about digital technology itself that compels a company to keep records of what you read. The decision to keep and use data is human-driven, and that may or may not excite in many of us a privacy threshold, a term borrowed from Mark Andrejevic's book iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era (University Press of Kansas, 2007). Either way, it should inspire in us a much more active awareness of the blessings and pitfalls of immersing ourselves in the digital sea.

Every generation seems compelled to pass judgments on the new generation and its devices. Often it is fear that inspires the judgment-making—a generation nervous about being irrelevant and unable to do what younger people apparently do so effortlessly. But the transition we're dealing with now is not typical. Within the span of a generation, we have experienced stunning, radical changes in how we communicate and make a living, compelling most of us to become adept at using new technologies because, in part, our livelihood depends on it. And of course it's hard to imagine living without the comfort and convenience of things like e-reading, watching movies on our iPads, and online shopping.

These compelling forces, coupled with long exposure to security arguments that associate an erosion of rights and the loss of privacy with safety, have lowered our privacy threshold. We are now much more willing than we used to be—before 9/11, before Facebook, before online shopping, before e-readers—to make concessions and sacrifice our privacy. But it would be foolish not to "think carefully about the relationship between the interactive revolution and the power of commercial and state institutions over our daily lives," as Andrejevic writes in his book.

A few will continue to sound alarms, but many others will scoff at the complaint that e-reading is yet another of modernity's predations on time-honored traditions. If the complaint is true, then I'm caught up in the movement. I have an e-reader with dozens of books. It's a godsend for those with sight issues. And when you first handle an e-reader, the convenience argument comes into greater focus—that is, having many books in one device as opposed to lugging a stack around. But there really are other more serious considerations that should encourage us to move beyond the coronation of devices and the personality cult surrounding their inventors.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was your article, "Sacrificing Our Privacy," in the Chronicle that led me here to your site. I kept the article open on my desk for a week. Your intelligence has been like good companionship.

5/08/2012 3:23 PM  
Blogger fromclay said...

Just saw your comment now, for some reason. Apologies. Thank you.

6/20/2012 12:12 PM  

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