Many folks will be receiving iPads and Kindles for the holidays, but is that actually a surveillance device sitting beneath the tree? NPR reports that your eBook reader may be watching you back, reporting your reading activity, highlighted passages and even GPS location back to the manufacturer. Following Amazon’s PR nightmare last year when the company remotely deleted copies of 1984 from Kindles, people are justifiably freaked out by the Orwellian overtones of books that report back to Big Bezos. But in the rush to demand more accountability from eReader manufacturers, let’s not dismiss the social aggregation tools these technologies can enable.
One of the advantages of hypertext is that it can be aggregated and shared widely, enabling discussion across blogs and social media, and the tracking of these conversations in real time. In this respect, both print and eBooks are at a severe disadvantage: their wealth of knowledge remains locked away due to the limitations of print and DRM, impeding our ability to share, discuss and debate the contents in the way we expect of text on the web. While Amazon’s popular highlights is an interesting attempt to bring the social to the book by notating the top passages highlighted by Kindle users, the draconian limitations placed upon the text within eBooks preclude any useful aggregation of the content within.
What if we could freely share passages and discuss them across Facebook, Twitter and blogs? What if we could instantaneously get context for a provocative sentence with a touch, like footnotes aggregated in real-time from across the social web? What if the data about reader activity was freely available to scrape and analyze, illuminating reader trends, habits and interests, just as Google is able to do with its regularly-updated lists of most popular search keywords and has attempted with their book-scraping Ngram viewer? This would require the eReader to report some activity back to a centralized server, yet such opportunities would ensure the book’s continued relevance in the age of hypertext and social media.
The problem isn’t so much that eReaders are tracking user activity, but the vendors’ lack of transparency about precisely what information they’re collecting, and what they will do with it. Responses to NPR’s interview requests have been frustrating vague: Apple claims it only collects “functional data” that is “unidentifiable”, only used to “understand customers and customer behavior”, while Google states that it tracks recently read pages to prevent the “abusive sharing” of books, whatever that means. Amazon refused to respond.
Transparency would help mitigate many user concerns, as would an opt-out option for readers who don’t want their activity tracked for any reason at all. Apple, Amazon and Google’s dithering responses are more than bad public relations: they demonstrate a fundamental lack of respect for the role books have historically played in debates over censorship and First Amendment rights. Customers must demand openness from eBook distributors to preserve the rights to free speech and privacy that we demand for our print books, that librarians went to bat to preserve during the early days of the Patriot Act.
However, the collection of this data isn’t always potentially evil. As the publishing industry scrambles to remain relevant, and authors fear for their future career, experimenting with how we read and share is essential. This experimentation can’t come at the price of our rights to free speech and privacy. But as readers and writers, we can’t grasp onto an antiquated vision of the book when it’s already on life support.