At a time when people instantly share their thoughts on Twitter, their family's accomplishments on Facebook and pictures of their breakfasts on Instagram, the idea of personal privacy may seem quaint. But the same Internet-based applications that make so much sharing possible raise important questions about how much of your personal information other people are entitled to.
The latest round in that debate involves your tablet or e-reader and the information companies can gather about what you are reading. A bill introduced last week by Assemblyman Benjie E. Wimberly, D-Bergen, Passaic, and Assemblywoman Mila M. Jasey, D-Essex, Morris, would give readers of digital books the same expectation of privacy that people who borrow books from libraries have.
It's an important effort. In the race between technology and privacy laws, technology is way ahead.
While Kindles, Nooks and iPads have changed the way we read by offering a veneer of privacy (Would the erotic best-seller "Fifty Shades of Grey" have been such a cultural phenomenon if women had been unable to read it anonymously?), the companies that sell digital books can keep track of an amazing amount of data about who purchased
e-books and how they are read.
Actually, most e-book "purchases" are rentals, and companies can tell, for instance, how long it takes someone to read a book, where people stop if they give up on a title and even which lines are highlighted by readers. Publishers think this information has the potential to help shape more-profitable books in the same way that focus groups and early screenings have long been used to make decisions about television shows and movies.
The concern, of course, is how else that information might be used and who else has access to it. Wimberly and Jasey's bill would put sensible limits on how e-book information is released. For instance, it would require a court order for release of most information about an individual's reading habits, making an exception for requests from law enforcement officials involved in an ongoing criminal investigation.
For most of us, there is a clear difference between the personal information we choose to broadcast on the Internet and the data our devices are secretly gathering about us. The idea of information about our reading habits getting into the wrong hands is creepy. Western civilization has had a long tradition of believing that what you read is nobody else's business. We all should be free to read Karl Marx, Ayn Rand or even a little soft-core porn without worrying about the government, a political rival or a next-door neighbor looking over our shoulders.