Why should companies – let alone governments – know what we are reading, asks Jo Glanville.
Every time you read a newspaper on your computer or buy an ebook, you can leave an electronic trail behind you. That trail is potentially lucrative for business, and is a new source of surveillance for government and law enforcement.
Retailers and search engines, most notably Amazon and Google, can now gather an astonishingly detailed portrait of our book-reading habits: what we buy, what we browse, the amount of time we spend on a page and even the annotations we make in an ebook. As campaigners have quipped, it’s the equivalent of a bookshop hiring someone to follow you round the shop noting every book you pick up, then sitting at home with you while you read what you bought.
Defending the freedom to read is no longer only about battling against direct censorship in obscenity, blasphemy or libel cases. Since the digital revolution, it’s now increasingly about protecting the freedom of the reader as much as the reading matter.
Last year, the state of California passed a law safeguarding the privacy of readers: for the first time, the vulnerability of readers in the digital age would be recognised in statute. The Reader Privacy Act means that government agencies will have to obtain a court order before they are able to access data on customers from bookstores or online booksellers. Civil liberties and digital rights groups are hopeful that other states will adopt the legislation. The EU has also passed a law that will make it less easy for websites to track our online activities without our consent.
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