E-books provide a treasure trove of personal data for Amazon and other publishers

Dec 14, 2023 | 0 comments

By Lia Holland and Jade Pfaefflin Bounds

Three in ten Americans read digital books. Whether they’re accessing online textbooks or checking out the latest bestselling e-book from the public library, the majority of these readers are subject to both the greed of Big Publishing and the priorities of Big Tech. In fact, Amazon’s Kindle held 72% of the e-reader market in 2022. And if there’s one thing we know about Big Tech companies like Amazon, their real product isn’t the book. It’s the user data.

Major publishers are giving Big Tech free rein to watch what you read and where, including books on sensitive topics, like if you check out a book on self care after an abortion. Worse, tech and publishing corporations are gobbling up data beyond your reading habits — today, there are no federal laws to stop them from surveilling people who read digital books across the entire internet.

Reader surveillance is a deeply intersectional threat, according to a congressional letter issued last week from a coalition of groups whose interests span civil rights, anti-surveillance, anti-book ban, racial justice, reproductive justice, LGBTQ+, immigrant, and antimonopoly. Our letter calls on federal lawmakers to investigate the harms of tech and publishing corporations’ powerful hold over digital book access.

This investigation is an essential first step to revive the right to read without fear of having your interests used against you. Because unfortunately, that right is on life support when it comes to digital books.

In November, a report from Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) exposed the atrocious privacy practices of the world’s largest publisher, Elsevier. Many students are required to use Elsevier’s digital books and learning products in order to complete coursework. There were over one billion downloads of their e-books and articles in 2021.

By default, Elsevier surveils every page a student visits on the internet — whether it’s related to their education or a google search for nearby abortion clinics. Then, their wildly permissive terms of service say they can build profiles on individual students and sell this information to data brokers. They have every incentive to do exactly that, especially since they are also a data broker themselves and make tons of money selling data on everyday people to anyone willing to pay, from law enforcement to your abusive ex.

Right now, there’s a concerted effort from anti-abortion lawmakers and vigilantes to discover who is getting or supporting an abortion, and data brokers have already been sued for packaging up data on visitors to reproductive health centers. But the U.S. still has no meaningful federal data privacy protections to turn off the tap of intimate personal data.

Whether you’re traveling for abortion care, legally accessing it at home, experiencing a miscarriage, or finding support resources for a loved one, worrying that reading a book might betray private medical information should be absurd. Yet in today’s post-Roe landscape of legal, social, and health threats around pregnancy, Big Publishing’s new hunger for reader data is increasing risks of criminalization and violence, especially for domestic violence victims, immigrants, and other marginalized groups.

Such 1984-esque threats woven into the lives of everyday people are particularly insidious. The average abortion seeker does not know how to navigate safely in a surveillance state—and knowing that they may be surveilled causes people to not access the reproductive or abortion care they need, to not seek the mental and emotional support they require, and to delay care until further into an unwanted pregnancy. All of these choices endanger a pregnant person.

That’s how the tech products of the largest publisher in the world are treating the basic human rights of its so-called customers.

What’s more, the data from these unholy alliances between Big Tech and Big Publishing has never been more lucrative. In the age of artificial intelligence, the ability to analyze unfathomably detailed data on individual people, create reports and inferences about those people, and use the whole lot of it to train AI models is constantly improving. The incentives to exploit the data of readers are the strongest they have ever been.

Big Publishing is clearly seeing nothing but dollar signs as apps like Hoopla gobble up identity-linked data on readers — and so it would be natural to put our hope in public libraries, which view patron privacy as a fundamental right essential to a functioning democracy. In the human rights community, libraries’ resistance against government surveillance under the Patriot Act is legendary.

Unfortunately, Big Publishing has sued to stop libraries from loaning surveillance-free digital books—winning a lower court judgment that the nonprofit Internet Archive is set to appeal before the year is out. Unless that judgment is overturned or new laws are passed, libraries have no alternative but to license digital books that are likely to be riddled with spyware.
We know less about surveillance at public libraries because, as SPARC’s November report details, Big Publishing has been increasingly sneaky about privacy and surveillance in their library contracts. This is a play right out of Silicon Valley’s handbook: to hide bad behavior with unaccountable external links or NDAs that prohibit libraries from warning their patrons.

Without laws to stop them, it’s reasonable to expect that popular library apps like Hoopla and Libby are hiding similar behavior behind legal smokescreens. Already, the absurdity of Amazon Kindle’s data collection is well documented and a source of Amazon’s overarching monopsony power in the book market.

With libraries facing legal annihilation from every direction if they attempt to carve out surveillance-free spaces for digital books, the future of reading is in the eleventh hour. Lawmakers must immediately launch an investigation to protect not only abortion patients, but all readers throughout this country.
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Lia Holland is a fiction author and campaigns and communications director at digital rights organization Fight for the Future, where they focus on creator’s rights and emerging technologies. Jade Pfaefflin Bounds is a reproductive and racial justice educator, doula, and digital rights organizer with Fight for the Future. His work converges and orients towards collective liberation.

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