An EFF press release trumpets the introduction of a bill in the California state legislature that would require a warrant or court order for access to sensitive reading records of both print and electronic books. The Reader Privacy Act of 2011 (SB 602) is backed by the ACLU and the EFF, and brings book-related privacy matters up to par with existing privacy and free speech safeguards in the state constitution and other state law.
As Californians increasingly rely on online services to browse, read, and buy books, it is essential that state law keep pace and safeguard readers in the digital age. Digital books now outsell paperbacks on Amazon.com and over 18 million e-readers are expected to be sold in 2012. Many bookstores already collect information about readers and their purchases. Digital book services can collect even more detailed information: which books are browsed, how long each page is viewed, and digital notes made in the margins. Current law doesn’t anticipate this new digital reality. Without strong privacy protections, reading records can be increasingly targeted by government surveillance as well as in legal proceedings like divorce cases and custody battles.
Certainly the question of law-enforcement access to library and other reading records has come up here before (in 2002, 2005, and 2008, among other times). But now that e-books are becoming as popular as they are, the question of electronic reading privacy is becoming a more and more pressing concern. Perhaps as California goes, so will go the nation.