Inside the ‘Walled Gardens’ of Electronic Reading

Inside the ‘Walled Gardens’ of Electronic Reading

The methods by which we learn to read not only embody the conventions of our particular society regarding literacy . . . they also determine and limit the ways in which our ability to read is put to use.

Alberto Manguel

It’s impossible to overstate the importance to humanity of reading. Books have toppled tyrannical regimes, enriched countless lives, and spread pleasure and edification across the globe. But they are not inherently liberating or democratic; they do not exist in a vaccuum. Their value in a society depends on its economic, social, and political conditions. These can breathe the life of millennia of accumulated wisdom into the people, uplifting and enlightening them – or confine them to a stunted existence as mere objects. As the proliferation of e-books, e-readers, and e-reading applications for tablet computers seems poised to end the 500 year dominance of printed books, it’s worth considering what effects (aside from the obvious commercial implications) might result from a society reliant on e-books.

Shifting the bulk of our reading to online or digital media fundamentally alters the simple and powerful act of reading. Allowing e-reader manufacturers and e-book retailers to mediate our reading experience makes us increasingly susceptible to censorship and surveillance, and the data-gathering capabilities of these devices adds another dimension to reading that benefits only their manufacturers. These effects are abetted and amplified by the internet’s monopolistic tendencies. Regulatory measures – such as enshrining a “right to read” or clawing back some of the internet’s privatization – would ensure the promise of reading is fulfilled.

Censorship should not be in any way accepted by any company from anywhere. … I’m confident that consumers worldwide will reward companies that follow those principles.

Hillary Clinton

In spite of the heady Utopian rhetoric of the early days of the internet, the hyper-modern creation of e-readers that purchase e-books from internet-based retailers has emphasized the ancient problem of censorship. Of course formal censorship existed in brick-and-mortar bookselling days, but the digital nature of e-books and the vast platform of retailers such as Amazon and Apple creates the potential for much more pervasive de facto censorship.

For example, Apple has changed the title of Naomi Wolf’s book Vagina: A New Biography, to V*****, and refused to sell two mainstream German magazines containing nudity; most recently they’ve been criticized for refusing to sell Hippie 1 and Hippie 2, Danish e-books and iPad apps containing photographs of naked hippies, even after the publisher resubmitted the titles in censored form.[1] This is part of an emerging trend in large internet-based enterprises, whereby things like search results and auto-complete suggestions are censored using algorithms – this occurs generally unbeknownst to the wider public, but nevertheless subtly imposes and shapes social norms and attitudes.[2]

Uffe Elbaek, the Danish culture minister, said that a danger of the global e-commerce marketplace is that companies such as Apple “will decide how freedom of speech will be arbitrated and who is allowed artistic freedoms. It’s important that we have these discussions at regional and national levels.”[3] The publisher of the books, Jens Lauridsen, raised another critical issue, that of self-censorship: Apple’s guidelines for appropriate content will lead to artists censoring their own work in order to gain access to their stores.[4] With companies like Apple and Amazon granting access to hundreds of millions of customers, many artists will decide they can’t afford not to self-censor – thereby depriving the world of potentially beautiful and valuable work. The decision of one retailer to not stock a title – based on subjective moral claims, ambiguous policies, or private religious views – can negatively affect millions of people.

Reads you like a book

Kobo ARC tagline

When you buy a physical book, the transaction usually ends the moment you walk out the door. You have your book, they have your money, everyone’s happy – you’re free to read, lend, or deface your book however you see fit. When buying an e-book, however, the initial transaction is only the beginning of a long and intimate relationship. The salient difference is not the screen, e-ink, or even a digital text’s infinite reproducibility, but the construction of devices like the Kindle, Kobo, or iPad (and their equivalent apps for tablet computers) as “tethered appliances:” they are easy to use, difficult to substantively modify, and useless unless connected to the vendor.[5]

This is problematic for a few reasons. The first is that the e-book retailer has the ability to alter or delete an e-book after it’s sold. In 2009 Amazon did exactly that, deleting from Kindle devices every instance of Orwell’s 1984, because the publisher offering it for sale through Amazon did not own the rights (1984 does not enter the public domain in the United States until 2044).[6] Two affected Kindle owners threatened a class-action lawsuit, and Amazon eventually apologized and vowed never to delete books again unless ordered to do so by a court.[7] But as Anton Chekhov and Cory Doctorow well know, if a gun appears in act one it must be fired in the third: just last October, Amazon deleted the entire library of a Kindle owner in Norway and refused to offer an explanation (at least until the story gained media exposure).[8]

Further reasons to be concerned about the tethering of e-readers stem from their “upstream capabilities:” Kindles automatically upload (to Amazon.com’s servers) data including notes, bookmarks, annotations, highlights, and progress within titles.[9] Marketing material for the Kobo ARC promises that the device “truly gets to know you – the real you and not just your purchase history,” in order to ease that “time-consuming and confusing” process of finding new books to read.[10] In a 2012 survey of 9 popular e-readers, the Electronic Frontier Foundation found that most of them tracked search data, shared it with law enforcement or “trusted third parties” (in the case of Kobo), provided only limited customer access to and control of personal information (although Kobo provides full access), and shared information outside of the company without a user’s consent.[11]

This upstream data flow amounts to surveillance of what used to be a private, individual activity. E-readers can track not just the books you read but how you read them and what you thought about them. Information that used to exist solely in a person’s mind or the marginalia of a book can now be easily shared within the company, with other companies, and with law enforcement agencies. This is not just a concern in non-democratic nations; according to Ronald Deibert,

Most liberal democratic governments have also pushed for new surveillance powers, downloading responsibilities for collection of data to private sector actors while relaxing judicial oversight of sharing with law enforcement and intelligence agencies.[12]

For example, in the United States, a company’s data is subject to the Patriot Act no matter where in the world it is stored,[13] and because this information exists on a server it is considered “stored communication” and is accessible with a subpoena rather than a warrant.[14]

Readers were born free and ought to remain free.

Vladimir Nabokov

Of course, companies don’t collect this data with the intent of sharing it with the police. In the case of a company like Amazon, which should be seen not as a retailer but as a technology company, the wider strategy is to collect as much data as possible and convert it to a revenue-producing asset.[15] The private activity of reading generates data, which in the aggregate can reveal patterns of behaviour far more profound than just purchasing habits, and is then used in the broader corporate context to more effectively sell things to you and others. This creates a second kind of reading that exists in parallel to the traditional sense, one whose value is wholly economic and benefits only Amazon. By engaging in leisurely or intellectual pursuits, Kindle readers are working in the sense of creating value for others, but have no sense of having worked, and of course receive no pay. Just by buying an e-book and sitting down to read it on their Kindle, they become human resources in Amazon’s computing system.[16]

By objectifying the act of reading, e-readers constrict a fundamental space of individual autonomy, for the financial gain of private enterprises. Readers might be willing to accept some behind-the-scenes data-gathering in exchange for the convenience of e-reading, but the act of reading as expanded and redefined by a Kindle tethered to Amazon.com nevertheless represents “a challenge to a core set of liberal democratic principles.”[17]

If you’re not the customer you’re the product.

popularized by Douglas Rushkoff

As undesireable as a society consisting only of tethered readers may be, this is not meant to vilify companies like Apple or Amazon. “Locking-in” customers via tethered devices and then exploiting the available data is an extraordinarily effective business strategy,[18] and in the absence of compelling reasons not to—legislation, or irate customers—it’s in their best interests to aggressively collect as much personal information as possible in order to further “corral us into walled gardens.”[19]

Unfortunately, the public’s interests don’t always align with the interests of private companies. The global connectivity of the internet, initially seen as an egalitarian, democratic public good, has proven to be even more susceptible than “real-life” markets to the monopolizing tendency of capitalism. The collaborative potential of the internet has enabled public goods such as Wikipedia and open-source software, but it has also enabled the rise of many monopolistic companies with massive economic power.[20] In heavily networked economies, success begets success: as a company gains market share, the “network effect” means its attractiveness to other customers increases disproportionately, and it quickly runs away from the pack.[21] To illustrate, in the US in 2001 the top 10 websites received 31% of all pageviews; by 2010 their share had increased to 71%.[22] This process has repeated many times, and now instead of competitive industries we have oligopolistic markets commanded by behemoths like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple, who have the power to derail economies and shape the technological landscape,[23] including the nature of the future of reading.

With each deleted Kindle library, each censored book in the iTunes store, and each expansion of an e-readers ability to surveil its owner, it becomes more readily apparent that there are costs to the benefits of the internet and its associated devices, costs that we are paying without fully appreciating. To counteract this process and protect the unadulterated beauty and power of reading, it is worth considering policy interventions. Enshrining a “right to read” as a necessary corollary to the freedom of expression would ensure that an individual is able to read freely, without fear of surveillance or the abuse of data gathered in relation to their reading, and would therefore have something of substance to express.[24] California has taken steps in this direction – they’ve passed a “reader privacy act” that grants more robust legal protection to the records of e-book consumers.[25]

More broadly speaking, if the internet were seen as a public utility, in keeping with the very early days of its (publicly funded) development,[26] some of the privately-enriching, publicly-impoverishing tendencies of market economies that it amplifies, as personified by tethered, data-gathering e-readers and moralizing e-book retailers, might be kept in check. Private companies should not be the only interests shaping the nature of the internet, especially as it comes to dominate more and more aspects of our lives. If we are to retain our freedom to, for example, read freely to our own ends only, then “the system’s overriding logic—and the starting point for all policy discussions—must be as an institution operated on public interest values.”[27] This is highly unlikely (barring the complete collapse and rebuilding of the global economy), but at the very least we should appreciate that a reading experience controlled and mediated by a private company is, for all its convenience and utility, a fundamentally different experience, one that can lead to abuses of our best ideas of a free and open society.


Cited Sources

[1] Michael Posner, “Nudity, e-books and censorship: How Apple became Big Brother,” Globe and Mail, 21 November 2012. (This and all subsequent links accessed 17 January 2013.)

[2] Evgeny Morozov, “You Can’t Say That on the Internet,” New York Times, 16 November 2012; Ernesto, “Google Adds Pirate Bay Domains to Censorship List,” TorrentFreak.com, 10 September 2012.

[3] Posner, “How Apple Became Big Brother.”

[4] Ibid.

[5] Jonathan Zittrain, The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008).

[6] Brad Stone, “Amazon Erases Orwell Books From Kindle,” New York Times, 17 July 2009.

[7] Ibid.; Cory Doctorow, “Amazon’s Orwellian deletion of Kindle books,” BoingBoing.net, 20 July 2009.

[8] Doctorow, “Amazon’s Orwellian deletion”; Cory Doctorow, “Kindle user claims Amazon deleted whole library without explanation,” BoingBoing.net, 22 October 2012.

[9] Ted Striphas, “The Abuses of Literacy: Amazon Kindle and the Right to Read,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 7, no. 3 (2010): 302.

[10]Kobo ARC Overview,” Kobo.com.

[11] Cindy Cohn and Parker Higgins, “Who’s Tracking Your Reading Habits? An E-Book Buyer’s Guide to Privacy, 2012 Edition,” Electronic Frontier Foundation, 29 November 2012. https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2012/11/e-reader-privacy-chart-2012-update ;

[12] Ronald Deibert, “The Growing Dark Side of Cyberspace ( . . . and What To Do About It), Penn State Journal of Law and International Affairs 1, no. 3 (2012): 269-70.

[13 Ibid., 262-3.

[14] Striphas, “The Abuses of Literacy,” 307-8.

[15] Ibid., 303-4.

[16] Ibid., 306.

[17] Ibid., 299.

[18] John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, “The Internet’s Unholy Marriage to Capitalism,” Monthly Review 62, no. 10 (2011): 10.

[19] Diebert, “The Dark Side of Cyberspace,” 263.

[20] Foster and McChesney, “Internet’s Unholy Marriage,” 8; 10.

[21] Ibid., 9-10.

[22] Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff, “The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet,” Wired, September 2010.

[23] Foster and McChesney, “Internet’s Unholy Marriage,” 10.

[24] Striphas, “The Abuses of Literacy,” 311.

[25] Alexandra Alter, “Your E-Book Is Reading You,” The Wall Street Journal, 19 July 2012.

[26] Foster and McChesney, “Internet’s Unholy Marriage,” 4.

[27] Ibid., 3.

3 comments:

  1. Mike this is a really excellent paper, and not because you’ve pandered to my distaste for eBooks or because you’ve quoted Vladimir Nobakov, I think you managed to capture the crux of the issue without sounding like a technophobe. Up to this point I had never really considered the movement towards a monopoly of tech companies looming over the publishing industry and that in combination with increasing censorship is very concerning. (Not to mention, Apple sounds like a HUGE prude. Just because none of their developers have ever seen a V*****, doesn’t mean they have to hide it from the rest of the world, who has watched enough Wheel of Furtune to know what’s hidden behind those asterisks.)

    Your reference to Kindle readers as unpaid members of Amazon’s human resources division also struck a chord. There is something very unpalatable about the role readers now play in spoon-feeding corporations with their information. This along with the increasing control of what books become available is something to consider as we enter an industry that seems desperate to make friends with big business so as not to fall by the wayside.

  2. Both the paper and Natalie’s comments had me sharing snippets aloud with anyone within hearing distance. Excellent unpacking of what reading data means both to the industry players collecting it and the consumers unwittingly providing it.

    You do a great job of pulling back the curtain, not in a panicky way but rather to uncover an aspect of ereading that as you rightly point out might not be on the minds of those simply enjoying the convenience of that ereading experience.

    I think you’ll both enjoy this Charlie Brooker video on how news is reported.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHun58mz3vI

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