December 25, 2011 | By Cindy Cohn

2011 in Review: California Reader Privacy Upgrade

As the year draws to a close, EFF is looking back at the major trends influencing digital rights in 2011 and discussing where we are in the fight for a free expression, innovation, fair use, and privacy.

2011 saw a narrow but important upgrade in privacy for Californians, both online and offline. In early October, Governor Brown signed a law that EFF sponsored along with the American Civil Liberties Union that updates reader privacy laws for the digital age, and not a moment too soon. 

Digital books now outsell paperbacks on and now represent an over $110 million market, with sales increasing over 1000% in this past year.  Yet digital books allow booksellers and libraries to collect more detailed reader information than ever before, including books browsed but not purchased, books purchased or lent, how long each page is viewed, whether a reader rereads particular pages and even the notes written in the margins.  Major digital booksellers, including Amazon and Google, routinely collect this sort of detailed information about readers. And without strong privacy protections, reading records can be increasingly targeted by government surveillance as well as in legal proceedings like divorce cases and custody battles. While inspired by the digital changes, the bill does not stop with them. It protects reader information at traditional bookstores too.

The new law has two main components: First, it has a heightened standards for accessing personal information associated with books, tracking both the federal 1st Amendment freedom of expression and the fundamental right to privacy under Art. 1 Sec. 1 of the California Constitution. Second, it requires transparency to keep policymakers and the public informed about requests for reading materials from book providers.

The Reader Privacy Act ensures that government and third parties cannot access private reading records without proper justification. It establishes clear rules for businesses and standards for government and third party access to reader records. Most importantly, because of SB 602, Californians can feel comfortable using new digital book services or their corner bookstore without worrying that their personal information will be unprotected. 

Our hope is that the Reader Privacy Act can be replicated across the country, and that the Digital Due Process coalition will spread the same sorts of strong protections against government access to reading records beyond books, and beyond California, to include and protect all the reading Americans do online. 

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