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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The e-reader over your shoulder

By Dennis Baron

DRM and the new Thought Police
A publisher of digital textbooks has announced a utility that will tell instructors whether their students are actually doing the assigned reading. Billed as a way to spot low-performers and turn them around before it’s too late, CourseSmart Analytics measures which pages of their etexts students have read and exactly how long that took. Then the student e-monitor sends a report card to the teacher. Another exciting example of interactive, digital education? Or a new way to snoop on students outside the classroom?

The answer is snooping. And it’s not just electronic textbooks that monitor reading habits. Kindles and iPads track what we read and when, record our bookmarks and annotations, remind us what we searched for last, and suggest other titles we may like. They collect our personal reading data in the name of improving, not our grade, but our digital reading experience, and along the way they may sell the metric of how and what and when we read and use it to improve the company’s bottom line as well.

It’s uncomfortable enough to sense a reader over your shoulder on your morning commute, but every time we fire up an iBook, Kindle, or Nook, there’s an e-reader over our shoulder as well. CCTV may monitor our comings and goings from the outside, but e-readers have spyware that actually looks inside our heads. And e-books provide the ultimate interactive experience: they read us while we are reading them.

Most people don’t seem to mind: they insist it’s no Faustian bargain to trade a little bit of personal data for the convenience of a digital download. Besides, ebooks cost less than printed ones, and didn’t Mark Zuckerberg say that privacy is dead?

And yet we still expect our reading to be private. Librarians will risk jail rather than tell government snoops what their patrons are reading, because the right to read unobserved is a fundamental component of the right to privacy. But when a vendor like Apple or Amazon tracks our reading matter, we don’t invoke Big Brother. Instead, we’re more complacent, accepting this intrusion on our literary solitude because that’s how capitalism is supposed to work.

Another thing that’s different about ebooks besides their lower price is that most of them, including electronic textbooks, are covered by a digital rights management agreement, or DRM. That means we’re actually renting ebooks, not buying them, and that has implications for our reading privacy as well. DRM gives the ebook’s real owners the right to manage their property and to check up on readers to make sure we’re not violating the terms of our lease.

Typically that means we can’t copy passages from an ebook, resell it, lend it to a friend, or give it away. Kindle’s DRM says it all: “You may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense, or otherwise assign any rights to the Kindle Content or any portion of it to any third party.” And even though Amazon invites you to “buy” a Kindle ebook, it’s the language of the DRM, not the button that we click, that governs the transaction: “Kindle Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider.” [Kindle Content is what we used to call books, and content providers are what we used to call bookstores.]

Content providers are free to control their property even after we’ve downloaded it to our personal e-readers. That’s how Amazon justified secretly removing copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from readers’ Kindles when the company discovered it had been selling a bootleg edition of the work. When news of this peremptory take-back came out, though, there was a public outcry. Amazon apologized for not notifying customers in advance, but not for seizing the books — the DRM gives Amazon the right to reach into customers’ digital devices and remove company property. Moreover, in cases where it thinks that customers have violated the terms of service agreement, Amazon, like any responsible landlord, may lock them out of their account and delete the contents of their library. The DRM agreement may not say so explicitly, but it allows Amazon, Apple, or any other “content provider” to revoke your right to read.

And what about a student’s right to read? Or not to read? Enrolling in a class shouldn’t require students to surrender their privacy to the Thought Police any more than it requires them to surrender their freedom of speech at the schoolhouse gate. It’s not even clear that ebook spyware will improve student performance. It may tell instructors if their students are hitting the books, and how much time it takes them to plow through chapter seven. But that may not really correlate with success in a course. Many students insist they learn the course material not from the textbook, but from lectures and discussions, by working problem sets, or by reading SparkNotes.

Digital technology gives us access to information, to content, if you will, on a scale never before possible. But it works two ways, giving content, or content providers, access to us as well. Our keystrokes, our browsing history, our likes and dislikes, all of that becomes the property, not of the reader, but of the digital rights manager. As George Orwell put it so succinctly in 1984, “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.”

Ebook analytics, or, the watcher watched: While you read 1984 on your digital device, 1984 reads you.

Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. You can view his previous OUPblog posts here or read more on his personal site, The Web of Language, where this article originally appeared. Until next time, keep up with Professor Baron on Twitter: @DrGrammar.

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Recent Comments

  1. Alex Landers

    Perhaps we should make backup copies of our Kindle/e-reader content on our PC or external hard drive—or will they be able to access that, too?

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