December 19, 2014

Adding Transparency to the Ebook Transaction

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During September 2011, Overdrive announced that some of the ebooks it provided would be accessible on Kindle devices. This was a big moment in the history of ebooks and libraries. It was something that the library community wanted.

However, with the increased access came privacy concerns. Amazon.com would, due to the way the system was set up, have access toinformation about the ebooks a user borrowed from their local library (via OverDrive) and placed on their Kindle device.

When this happened I raised that concern (as did others). Sadly, nothing has yet been done about it. Over the past couple of years I’ve learned that many in the library world are aware of this issue but sadly, they don’t want to address it. I have to admit that the library community (including librarian organizations)’s lack of interest in this issue has been disappointing.

I have heard comments like, “users really don’t care,” and have been given the impression by some that they don’t want to do anything that would rock the boat and cause problems with libraries providing ebooks to patrons. (Of course, others agree with my views.)

Plus, there are many players in the mix, and we all know how challenging it can be to get everyone on the same page on any issue. But that’s no reason not to work to find a solution, especially since much, if not all, of the solution involves education and disclosure.

Internet privacy issues are not going away. In fact, they’re only going to increase. The library community as a whole and librarians individually should be clear on how we handle not only this particular situation, but similar and related situations that are likely to arise in the future.

With the library community spending a lot of time discussing (as we should be) the current news about privacy, Internet spying, etc. it is again time to address the privacy issues in our own backyard as well.

In this time of increased concern over Internet privacy, I find it a bit ironic that the library community itself, the organizations that support it, and a leading library vendor can’t find a way to solve this problem. It doesn’t seem to be all that difficult.

Let me be clear, I am in no way calling for OverDrive to end its relationship with Amazon. What I and others are asking for is that the libraries themselves and OverDrive work together to make it clear to users of the service that their borrowing record for ebooks is known to Amazon.

We also need to clearly explain that if a user highlights passages and/or makes notes in a book, Amazon also permanently stores that information unless the user deletes the title from his or her Kindle library.

We’ve seen in the past couple of weeks that the general public does care about Internet privacy. But even if it didn’t, librarians and our partners must care. Remember, it’s your library promoting OverDrive/Kindle ebooks, the process begins via a click on your library’s website, and the user needs a library card number from your library to borrow the book.

There are even laws dealing with reader privacy in some cities and states. However, just because the laws aren’t being broken doesn’t make this issue something that the library world should turn its back on. There are ethical issues at play here, as well as transparency. Transparency in government and the data/information it provides is something the library world is regularly calling for. As public institutions, libraries themselves should practice what they preach.

Here are a few suggestions on how to potentially correct these issues. I would welcome others.

  • From the outset, make it clear in various locations, in training sessions, etc. that if patrons choose to access a book on a Kindle device, Amazon becomes aware of it. Only placing this information in the terms of service or privacy policy does not suffice. Some might argue that if the library user is “so interested” in privacy they’ll take the time to read the terms of service and privacy policy. But while people should read these documents, in most cases they don’t. Since libraries are about providing access to information, we should make this information as accessible as possible.
  • As the user clicks to have the book delivered to his or her Kindle, a warning should appear explaining in clear language what’s about to happen in terms of privacy. The user can simply click, acknowledge, and move on. The warning would not appear again until some point in the future.
  • The library website and staff should provide clear instructions to users on how to remove the information on the titles they’ve borrowed from the library from the Amazon database.
  • The library community has taken reader privacy very seriously for a very long time, and been the recipient of a lot of well-deserved praise for it. Now is certainly not the time to give up on these important beliefs and goals.

In fact, we should being doing more to explain how important privacy is to libraries in the digital age.

That needs to begin with librarian education. We must have a clear understanding of how the Internet works and the tools and techniques that can be used to help make the Internet as private as possible. This is a never-ending responsibility since the technology is constantly changing.

Sharing this knowledge is yet another way for the library and librarian to be a vital part of their community.

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Gary Price About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.