Privacy Concerns: Top Down or Bottom Up?

Privacy is a big, important subject for the librarian profession. The American Library Association (ALA) considers privacy to be one of its fundamental rights as evidenced by its inclusion in the Library Bill of Rights, which states “rights of privacy are necessary for intellectual freedom and are fundamental to the ethics and practice of librarianship”. At the same time, the ALA holds the freedom to read to be a cornerstone of librarianship. In its Freedom to Read Statement, the ALA, speaking for the profession, emphatically declares that “[w]e believe that publishers and librarians have a profound responsibility to give validity to that freedom to read by making it possible for the readers to choose freely from a variety of offerings”.

Concerns over privacy issues had led the ALA to raise a number of alarms over various industry practices, the most recent one of which is Amazon’s entry into library e-book lending. The potential for privacy intrusion here stems from the fact that in order to borrow a Kindle e-book, a reader needs to log into an Amazon account, and whatever information she sprinkles around there is Amazon’s to keep. The ALA is uncomfortable with the matter and has (once again) stressed the need for patron’s privacy and confidentiality.

While I’m of the opinion that privacy, or the waiving thereof, is a tool in my consumer’s power toolkit to bargain for free goods and services, let me say categorically that I value my privacy:

I. Value. My. Privacy.

What does that mean, however? To paraphrase Noam Chomsky, values only have meaning when they come in conflict with other values. (He said it much better, but short of re-watching the excellent, but 4-hour long, documentary Lake of Fire, I going to have to make do with my inferior paraphrase.) That is, we can  only properly define, understand, and explicate our values when they dictate that we conform to a belief or behavior that runs contrary to other values. We all value both security and freedom, life and choice, order and liberty; it’s only when holding on to one value means we have to compromise the other that a value becomes something that is valued. Until then, they are pretty abstracts, easy to say and handy to use as rods to smite others.

So, what does it mean that the library profession values its patrons’ privacy? What is the next best thing it is willing to give up to protect this privacy? The answer, of course, depends on the context. In the case of Amazon e-books, perhaps (some) libraries are willing to forego access to these books if the price of getting them is to let Amazon record who borrowed what. Doing so would violate their declaration of “making it possible for the readers to choose freely from a variety of offerings”. This is fine; it shows us what our values are, what they mean.

Second, if libraries make this choice, they will have made it on behalf of, and in the interest of, their patrons. They will have decided for people who are not themselves, for patrons who are not in the library profession and so are not bound by the ALA’s set of values. As such, it behooves us to ask whether the patrons have same concerns over privacy as do libraries and librarians. How many patrons value privacy over access to Amazon e-books? How many patrons would say that the cost of sharing additional information with Amazon outweighs the benefit from the additional books they’d have at their fingertips? Do we know? When was the last time we asked?

Next, when are we justified in precluding patrons from making their own choices? In this particular case, should or shouldn’t we say that those who deem the benefit-cost analysis to fall one way are free to borrow the Kindle books, while those think otherwise, won’t? Isn’t this the value of choice?

It (almost) goes without saying that we librarians should always push for more favorable trade-offs; it would be lovely if Amazon didn’t attach data-sharing strings when it made its e-books available to us. In fact, it would be lovely if Amazon didn’t demand any payment from us at all; we should push for that also. Lower prices, less data leaks, more stuff, less cost — who would say we shouldn’t try for all of these things? However when we have multiple goals, multiple values, it is essential that we know what we want more. It is essential that we know that we want it for the right reasons — not because we know best and our (ordering of our) values are the right ones and so we should paternalistically impose them, but because these values are the values of (the majority of, not the squeakiest of) our users.

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