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A major publishing lawsuit would strengthen surveillance in the future

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Amid the inflection point of library digitization, publishers want to reduce and redefine the role libraries play in our society. Their business suit seeks loans from legally purchased and scanned books, cementing a future of excessive and opaque license 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.

Major 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 Oklahoma’s library system that recently… endangered librarians if they even “use 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 blocked for: buy and own digital books-and readers are in the same boat. Instead, publishers only offer expensive licenses that: libraries rely on emergency funds and can perhaps 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. Public schools that are bound by state law to protect their students’ data are already required to pay $27 per digital copy of Anne Frank’s Diary of a young girl every year. Publishers are sending a clear signal that privacy will be a premium feature if they get their way.

This lawsuit is a burn digital book to end libraries’ most viable way of lending and preserving 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 money for a smaller list of books, authors will be in a more difficult position for publishing opportunities, creating an already exclusive and white industry even less hospitable for diverse and emerging authors. To get published at all, even more authors will be forced to use Amazon’s extractive self-publishing e-book and audiobook monopoly. To access those books, readers already have to pay both in dollars and in data.

Supervision endanger traditionally marginalized people most, and publishing urgently needs to address this blind spot. The authors listed in the pack 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 profit-driven PR campaign with undercompensated authors as human shield. 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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