The Herald Bulletin

December 27, 2010

Emmett Dulaney: Contemplating E-Reader privacy

By Emmett Dulaney
For The Herald Bulletin

— Sometimes, the most disturbing part of a discussion is that you need to have it at all. Consider the issue of e-readers, for example. For each of the past two years, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has released a guide to e-book readers and the current one, posted in December, can be found at http://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2010/12/2010-e-book-buyers-guide-e-book-privacy.  As the URL telegraphs, this guide isn’t your usual review of whether the Kindle has a sharper image than the Nook or why the iPad is a better bargain than the Sony Reader. Instead, this evaluation is focused solely on the privacy policies associated with each.

I’ll focus only on the Amazon Kindle since it is one I own and use. It might surprise you to know that per the policy, Amazon can log searches I do with the device – searches online for other books I might purchase, as well as for phrases within books I have purchased. Speaking of books I have purchased, they can log how many pages I read, and annotations I make.  The information they collect that specifically identifies me can be used by them, as well as law enforcement and civil litigants. The information in aggregated form (trend data versus my data) can be shared with others wanting to use it for promotional and marketing purposes.

Not surprisingly, because of these capabilities there is a push to pass legislation regulating what e-book reader companies can do.  What I find appalling is that at some point in history we reached an era when you specifically have to tell companies what they cannot do; otherwise – no matter how wrong we can all recognize it to be – it will be done.

Immanuel Kant is one of the most well-known philosophers of the past two hundred years and his Critique of Practical Reason essentially narrows the field of ethics known as Universal Rules down to this: never take any action you would not be willing to see others in the same situation take. I find it unfathomable that Amazon would think it acceptable if their undisclosed Chinese manufacturer installed similar spying technology in the Kindle. I further find it implausible that they would be willing to quietly allow the same information to be collected if it were a government (ours or another) benefitting from the data instead of them. Would they so willingly allow the collection if it were for publishing companies instead of them? It is only because the data is going to them (and covered by a user policy that so few read) that they are ok with it. They are taking actions they would not be willing to see others take.

Amazon isn’t alone in the e-reader market in collecting this data and Kant’s isn’t the only school of ethics. We can belabor the point by looking at the Golden Rule, Aristotle’s virtues and so on, but it is impossible to justify this undertaking using any of them. What is truly scary, though, is to realize that despite commonsense telling all that what they are doing is wrong, it requires legislation for them to stop.

 

Columns from the Falls School of Business at Anderson University  appear Tuesdays in The Herald Bulletin. This week’s columnist, Emmett Dulaney, teaches marketing and entrepreneurship.