A major publishing lawsuit would strengthen surveillance in the future

Amid the inflection point of library digitization, publishers want to reduce and redefine the role libraries play in our society. Their lawsuit is aimed at seeking loans from legally purchased and scanned books, forging a future of extortionate prices and opaque licensing agreements and Netflix-esque platforms to replace library cards with credit cards. If successful, they will hollow out the public’s last great location to access information free of corporate or government oversight. This serious threat to the privacy and security of readers has gone largely unnoticed.

Big Tech monopolies like Amazon and its Kindle e-reader shamelessly collect and store data about readers. They do this to exploit readers’ interests and habits for advertising and gain an edge in the marketplace, but that same data can be shared with law enforcement or bounty hunters to prosecute people who research topics like abortion or gender-affirming health care. Libraries, on the other hand, have an age-old practice of vigorously defending the privacy of their readers. Even the Oklahoma library system that recently threatened librarians for “using the word abortion” is still doubling down on providing better anonymity for customers. The function of a library is at odds with the prerogatives of surveillance capitalism.

Today, libraries are generally prohibited from buying and owning digital books – and readers are in a similar boat. Instead, publishers only offer expensive licenses that require libraries to rely on emergency funds and may be able to afford only the most popular works. These costs put libraries at a disadvantage in serving traditionally marginalized communities, especially young, disabled, rural and low-income readers who rely on e-books. Already, public schools bound by state law to protect their students’ data are required to pay $27 each year per digital copy of Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. Publishers are sending a clear signal that privacy will be a premium feature if they get their way.

This lawsuit is a digital book burn to end libraries’ most viable way to lend and preserve diverse, surveillance-free digital books: scanning the books themselves. If libraries do not own or control the digital book access systems, or can only afford digital books with a “let our company keep an eye on your customers” discount, people who rely on digital books from libraries are much more likely to be monitored than those who are privileged enough to travel to read a paper book.

But it’s not just readers whose chances are on the chopping block. If publishers can charge more for a smaller list of books, authors will be in a more difficult position for publishing opportunities, making an already exclusive and white industry even less hospitable to diverse and emerging authors. To get published at all, even more authors will have to turn to Amazon’s extractive self-publishing monopoly for e-books and audiobooks. To access those books, readers already have to pay in dollars as well as in data.

Surveillance traditionally puts marginalized people most at risk, and publishing urgently needs to address this blind spot. The authors listed in the suit appear to be about 90% white, 60% male and 17% deceased. While it would be ridiculous to blame late authors for not speaking up, the others have been hugely complicit: publishing houses, associations and other institutions outrageously claim that the very existence of libraries in the digital age harms their intellectual property and defame librarians as “mouthpieces” for Big Tech.

Authors listed in the suit include James SA Corey, best known for: the vastness, A game of thrones’ George RR Martin, Gillian Flynn of gone girl fame, and Elizabeth Gilbert of eat pray love. Brene Brown’s Very very daring as well as multiple Lemony Snicket titles are also listed. Sarah Crossan’s YA Novel Resist, and Emily St. John Mandel’s Eleven Station are also among the titles for which the internet archive is being sued for possession and loan. Ironically, Malcolm Gladwell’s David & Goliath also belongs to the arsenal of publishers.

This lawsuit illustrates a new level of unabashed greed from publishers and their shareholders, shrouded in a record-breaking PR campaign that uses undercompensated authors as human shields. The result will not only determine access to knowledge, information, culture and community for both readers and authors, it will determine the safety of readers seeking information that could be banned or criminalized in their place of residence.

No one should ever be arrested for reading a book. If publishers truly cared about the best interests of our society, they would make a good faith effort to help libraries own and preserve digital books in a way that is fair to authors and ensures the safety of readers.

Lia Holland is director of campaigns and communications at Fight for the Future. Jordyn Paul-Slater is a communications and privacy intern at Fight for the Future.

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