Nov 28

Peter Brantley

Peter Brantley

Digital Reading, Subpoenas, and Privacy

In the c|Net blog, The Iconoclast, Declan McCullagh recounts that Amazon successfully resisted an effort by federal prosecutors in Madison, WI to obtain 24,000 customer records.

As c|Net notes, libraries and bookstores have recourse to special protections against the forced release of their users' data, and Amazon -- to its great credit -- has utilized that entrust of law to protect its customers. It should be applauded for that stance.

McCullagh writes,

It's important to note that the First Amendment gives online and offline bookstores a greater legal ability to resist law enforcement demands than say, banks or credit card companies enjoy. And Amazon is following the tradition of other booksellers, which have a tradition of--individually and through the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression--opposing requests from overzealous prosecutors.

In an important 2002 case, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that police could not serve a search warrant on Denver's Tattered Cover Book Store. Two years earlier, a judge denied the Drug Enforcement Administration's attempts to get sales records from a Borders bookstore as part of a grand jury investigation. And perhaps the most famous case came when independent counsel Kenneth Starr tried unsuccessfully to obtain Monica Lewinsky's purchase records from Kramerbooks, a popular neighborhood bookstore in Washington, D.C.

The issues worry me greatly: reading is tuning into a series of digital transactions, transitioning from a private matter of solitary, silent reading into an inherently social act suitable for data mining. Indeed, the fascinating historical work of Paul Saenger demonstrates how the revolutionary change wrought in the early Medieval Ages by the Arabs and the Irish of separating words with spaces and punctuation to ease the understanding of translated Latin texts enabled silent reading, which in turn created modern expectations for privacy in the matter of what we read and think. Unlike the historical precedent of spoken storytelling and dictation, silent reading, with its interior voice, enabled the wandering of mind and thought into private places. This newfound sense of privacy, sweeping through Europe, helped unleash a river of heretical criticism and speculation that was catalyst for the Western Renaissance, and midwife to the research library.

So we all must then inquire of publishers building online digital text libraries, and Microsoft and Google with their online books corpora: what happens when the police and courts of the state come to you? : Are you prepared to respect and reassert in a digital age -- an age in which the act of reading is inherently recordable -- the individual's control of privacy that has been maintained over the last 700 years? The alternative is to begin a retreat to the sunken expectations for the disclosure of our thoughts and writing that echo with eerie fidelity the cloistered labyrinths of the oral culture of 1200 AD -- a world far more inimical to free expression.

In the history of human society, the state's interest is rarely one in support of an individual's investigation of the nature of governance, but such inquiry may well be in the interest of its citizens. In our fear of terror we may cloud the rightful opportunity to consult criticism. In part on the demand for such a right for its own citizens did the country in which I live, at the moment of its proclamation, declare its independence. For this lesson we must have learned, that we must practice the privilege of asserting our privacy, and with it the ability to think heretically, against convention, away from the scrunity of unwelcome authority. If we lose that in the skein of automation's snares, we are wholly lost.

tags: publishing  | comments: 5   | Sphere It

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Comments: 5

  Adam Hodgkin [11.29.07 12:05 AM]

Its intriguing that the use of touch screens will return us to a more public style of reading in which our fingers will trace the pace and pattern of our thought, with strokings and jabs visible from the next cubicle. In the fifteenth and sixteenth century many readers traced the line as they read (silently or with a murmur) much as we still sometimes teach children to read the text with a finger. The way we interact with a text is subtly and profoundly changing. But styles of collaborative and interactive reading will inevitably break the presumed privacy of reading. Collaboration and interaction will work better as we learn new customs of courtesy, civility and restraint. The blogosphers is leading the way in this.... even if we still have a long way to go and civility is sometimes absent in the comments! New forms of courtesy may ameliorate the loss of presumed privacy.

  Search‚óä Engines Web [11.29.07 01:38 AM]

If society as a whole becomes concerned about intrusions,, they will likely not vote in legislatures who do not adhere to their current values, thus affecting the Judiciary as well as the Executive branches.

(In terms of bookstores, one has the option of NOT paying with credit cards or ordering books online.)

The more tech savy users and companies may take other proactive actions:

In terms of online reading, one has the option of using a proxy and downloading the information directly to a flash drive as opposed to a hard drive. Also, turning off the browser history and deleted cookies.

One can even have their PC set up to use the flash as the temporary internet files.

In term of services that require logs ins - one could still use an online proxy and simply create several accounts.

In extreme cases, some may avoid doing research using their own IP addresses and renting wireless access.

  Alain Pierrot [11.29.07 09:36 AM]

"what happens when the police and courts of the state come to you?"

What about a similar question:
"what happens when a rich company comes to you?"

Facebook and many companies following suit have the answer in their licences, and it is not building a very fair balance between vendors and customers...

  bowerbird [11.29.07 04:17 PM]

only the most clumsy of governments will _request_ such data.

the rest -- and you can be assured the u.s. is a "leader" here --
are already collecting all this data, routinely, even as we speak.

you can complain all you want. lieutenant colonels laugh at you.


p.s. and -- just in case you didn't know -- the u.s. also tortures
political prisoners. shocking, i know... but whatcha gonna do?

  Michael Jensen [11.30.07 01:14 PM]

Important note, Peter, and well made. Easy to quibble or dismiss as naive idealism, but it's not, it's part of the societal conversations we should be having whenever we have the opportunity.

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