Good news for Californians who treasure their privacy. The Golden State has enacted two new laws that protect your right to read whatever you want in the library, even in electronic form with some measure of confidentiality.
The first new statute pertains to confidentiality, and extends to contractors that handle patron use records, including Amazon.com, which now offers library e-books for Kindle. While the confidentiality law has a broad reach in that it protects all library user records (books, videos, database searches etc.), the second new statute, the Reader Privacy Act goes further. It reaches nonlibrary users as well. It prohibits all commercial providers of “book services” from disclosing, or being compelled to disclose, any personal information relating to users of the book services. “Books” are defined as paginated or similarly organized content in printed, audio, electronic, or other format, but excluding magazines and newspapers).
Amazon.com keeps track of what you read. Some people appreciate this feature, because they like to receive Amazon’s suggestions for further reading. You might, for example, appreciate knowing that people who purchased The American Way of Death also enjoyed The High Cost of Leaving and Remains to Be Seen. But Amazon’s targeted advertising is based in part on your book purchases and Kindle use, and you might not want third party corporations to be told if you are recently bereaved and vulnerable.
This commercial practice stands in contrast to a bedrock privacy principle of library philosophy, that your reading choices should be confidential. Library confidentiality laws in every state of the union protect your book borrowing habits.
The new California statutes extend this principle to electronic materials in the library. The confidentiality law passed without much fanfare last summer. It extended the existing law that all publicly funded libraries must keep patron registration and circulation records confidential to all “Patron Use Records.” Patron use records are defined to include
(1) Any written or electronic record, that is used to identify the patron, including, but not limited to, a patron’s name, address, telephone number, or e-mail address, that a library patron provides in order to become eligible to borrow or use books and other materials.
(2) Any written record or electronic transaction that identifies a patron’s borrowing information or use of library information resources, including, but not limited to, database search records, borrowing records, class records, and any other personally identifiable uses of library resources information requests, or inquiries.
This means that Amazon.com cannot disclose library patron use records to prospective advertisers or any other third parties, unless it gets the patron’s authorization or a court order. This is an important point. Libraries should ensure that their users have a real choice in giving such authorization when using ebook services offered by the library. That is, we all know that many online services require consent to share your information. The alternative for the user is just not to use the service. Library ebook services must be sure to allow patrons to use the service without requiring consent to share their user information.
The reason for protecting customer reading habits has deep historical roots. Reading material has often been taken as a proxy for guilt, as when mere possession of communist literature was taken as a crime. In 2010, a college student was jailed after airport security workers found him carrying Arabic language flash cards.
Of course some readers of ebooks actually may be criminals, and law enforcement authorities need access to information about their use of book services. Both laws include provisions that allow the police and other authorities to get the information they need from libraries, Amazon.com, and other commercial providers, by applying for a court order.
Your reading habits do reveal a lot about you, from your religious beliefs to your health concerns. Amazon has the technology to tell anyone about the books you browsed but did not read, the pages where you lingered, and the electronic notes you made.
That’s why it is such good news that in California e-books and conventional books enjoy the same level of protection when they are borrowed from libraries.
Grayson Barber is an attorney and privacy advocate in Princeton, New Jersey.