Choose Privacy Week 2015: Who’s Reading the Reader?

By Michael Robinson
Chair, ALA-IFC Privacy Subcommittee

It feels like online privacy has taken a step closer to center stage in libraryland in 2015.  For years, a number of librarians have been advocating that libraries and the ecology of vendors and publishers they do business with need to do a better job of protecting the online privacy of our patrons. We will hear again from some of them in this year’s fantastic series of blog posts for Choose Privacy Week. Despite these voices of concern, privacy really did take a backseat as libraries struggle to deliver econtent, embrace the modern Web, and provide a better user experience.

Snowden’s revelations (was it just 2 years ago?) increased public concern over online privacy and many people feel increasingly powerless to protect themselves. Libraries stepped up to the plate and offer programs and classes around protecting your online privacy. But there is still a disconnect between what our ethics and policies are concerning online privacy and what our common practice has become. We offer classes on how to protect yourself as a consumer from commercial surveillance but cannot ensure that a reader’s privacy is protected when they access online content at the library.

Last October we were confronted with the extent of data that Adobe’s Digital Editions collects about users and their reading habits. These revelations are, in one sense, the library profession’s mini-Snowden. It exposed what some suspected all long and heightened concerns among a broader audience. It leaves us with questions about the patron data collection practices of the vendors and publishers we rely on. Questions which brings us to the theme of this year’s Choose Privacy Week, “Who’s Reading the Reader?”

As online privacy moves more towards center stage, there are a number of encouraging trends:

•The ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee published a revised Privacy Toolkit last year which describes policy issues and best practices.
• A Patron Privacy Technologies Interest Group recently formed within LITA.
• The ALA Digital Content Working Group which negotiates with ebook providers is showing increased interest in privacy issues.
• The Library Freedom Project won a Knight News Challenge grant to provide librarians and their patrons with tools and information to better understand their digital rights.
• The San Jose Public Library won a Knight News Challenge grant to develop online tools to help individuals better understand privacy.
• NISO is beginning work on a Consensus Framework to Support Patron Privacy in Digital Library and Information Systems.
• A new initiative called Let’s Encrypt that will provide a free and easy way for websites to move to HTTPS.

Libraries, vendors, and publishers must work together to tackle the issues of online privacy and develop practices that respect the core value of reader confidentiality. Individually, its overwhelming, but together we can do it. I encourage you to join us in the discussion this week by reading and commenting on the upcoming blog posts.

Michael Robinson is an Associate Professor at the Consortium Library, University of Alaska – Anchorage. In addition to serving as chair of the ALA-IFC Privacy Subcommittee, he serves as chair of the Alaska Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee.

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