Readers and Anonymity


You can walk into a random bookstore, browse through the shelves, buy a book with cash, and take it home to read. No one but you and your family will know. You can visit a library and read to your heart’s content, and you’ll be the only one who knows.

When you buy a book with a credit card, in a store or online, you become part of an ecosystem that has data at its core. This means, as we move into a digital-first era, that you are giving up anonymity. We need to fix this.

Data has enormous value for everyone (including readers at times) in the emerging publishing ecosystem. As an author, I would love to know more about how my readers use what I write, including what passages they find difficult or boring, what words they look up in a dictionary and how they annotate. For publishers, sellers and middlemen, increasing amounts of data in all parts of the publishing process means vastly better understanding of supply chains, internal systems, sales, readers’ preferences and so much more. Readers can benefit from the data-ization of books, too; for example, I rather enjoy knowing how much time it will take me, at my current reading speed, to finish a Kindle book.

But readers’ privacy shouldn’t be just an artifact of an analog era. We may, in a general sense, have no objection to others knowing what we’re reading, or even how we’re reading it. But there are times when we want to keep such information to ourselves. This is just as true for books as for web searches; if you or someone you care about contracts a socially awkward virus, for example, you are wise to keep your research about that as closely held as possible. And it’s downright dangerous to hold politically unpopular views, or even read about them, in some societies. What you read may not be who you are, but you should always have the right to read what you want without fear of it being used against you.

We can’t trust the middlemen – old or new – with this information. They may sell or trade it. They may be forced by lawyers with subpoenas to hand it over to third parties. Governments will just collect it, in bulk, for analysis later. The need for anonymity in reading has never been greater.

One of the most obvious impediments to getting this right is digital rights management, or DRM, which at some levels is designed as a user-tracking system. But it’s far from the only one.  We need to create systems that restore anonymity and privacy. If they’re software-based, they can’t be bolted onto the platform after it’s built; they need to be part of the building process.

A few months ago I asked Richard Stallman, the free software leader who’s been thinking about these issues for a long time, for suggestions on how we could buy e-books (and movies, magazines, newspapers, etc.) anonymously. He had four off the top of his head:

1. Pay with a money order.  (You write a code on it and use the code to get your purchase.)

2. Buy them through bookstores (or other suitable stores) where you can pay cash.

3. If Paynearme manages to become usable for smaller companies, that would do the job.

4. Set up a system of digital cash for such payments.

The sooner the publishing world takes this seriously, the better. If we create only systems that abrogate our right to privacy, we are creating a society that breeds conformists, not free thinkers.