Washington University law professor Neil M. Richards worries about a day when everyone knows what everyone else is reading.
From social reader apps, which automatically share what users are reading on Facebook, to tablets and e-reading devices, which store detailed reading data, the laws protecting individuals haven’t kept up with technology, he says.
Media reports from earlier this summer documented a sharp decline in the numbers of people using news social reader apps. The decline has continued for some, but the latest data also reaffirm some growth in select apps, including ESPN, the Huffington Post and
“The way we read is really changing,” Richards said. “It used to be we could go to a bookstore, with a $5 bill, and there would be no record that we had read that book.”
That kind of privacy does not exist on tablet devices such as the new Kindle Fire HD, which became available earlier this month. The older Kindle Fire sold out last month and was described by Amazon as the “most successful product launch in the history” of the company.
Richards points out that when consumers read on devices such as the Kindle, “Amazon knows exactly who you are, all the books you have bought, what you are reading, what page you are on, which passages you’ve highlighted and how long it takes to read.”
Digital books now outsell paperbacks on, and more than 18 million e-readers are expected to be sold this year. Apple users have downloaded more than 100 million e-books via iBooks.
Corporations such as Apple with its popular iPad, Barnes and Noble with the Nook and Amazon know much more than librarians ever did about individual reading habits. But unlike librarians, who are bound by professional ethics and dozens of statutes protecting individuals, companies are guided by privacy policies they write themselves, Richards said.
Plus, they have a business interest in the information collected.
In a Wall Street Journal story, Amazon said that it collected data in aggregate, on group reading habits, not targeting individuals. The company, however, has declined to share how it analyzes and uses the Kindle data it gathers.
Privacy advocacy organizations have pushed for laws to prevent an individual’s reading habits from being given to government authorities without a court order. California passed the Reader Privacy Act of 2011, which went into effect this year, requiring authorities to have such an order before digital booksellers disclose customer reading profiles.
Richards recently presented a paper he published this spring in the Georgetown Law Journal about the perils of “social reading” in which what individuals read may be “frictionlessly shared” with friends and acquaintances on social networks such as Facebook, in collaboration with some newspapers.
“If we give up our ability to read confidentially, we’ve lost a real freedom of belief and freedom of thought, which I believe are our most important civil liberties,” Richards said. At stake, he argues, is our intellectual privacy, which he defines as “our ability to read and think and make up our minds about what we think about the world without other people watching or hearing.”
Frasat Chaudhry, a neurologist practicing in Chesterfield, Mo., says sites that require her to create an account, log in and publicize what she has read annoy her, and she refuses to use them.
“I don’t want someone making a judgment of me because of what I’m reading,” she said. “I’m not comfortable with it at all.”
Many users seem to agree with Chaudhry, according to the figures from, which show that the Washington Post Social Reader users plummeted from 17.4 million monthly active users in April to 7.5 million in September. The Guardian’s social reading app also lost users, from a high of 3.9 million monthly users in March to 2.5 million earlier this month.
The WP Social Reader is built on “the simple thesis that you want to know and read what your friends are reading,” according to the Washington Post website. And while even critics such as Richards are quick to point out that there are advantages to being able to share recommendations about reading material, movies and music, it’s the automatic default set to share that he finds so troubling.
He argues that just as society recognized in the past that certain professionals were fiduciaries of our information bound by certain codes of confidentiality, in the digital age those type of standards ought to apply to digital bookstores, search engines and providers of video.
The privacy of reading and searching online matters if we care about individuals’ being able to share who they are with whom they want, he said.
“It’s important for the same reason we don’t like government surveillance of our lives.
“If we are always being watched, we will turn the entire of our society into the eighth grade, and that would be a real tragedy.”