Future Tense

The Fifty Shades of Grey Paradox

E-readers let people read the BDSM novel without fear of embarrassment. But there are major privacy concerns.

Woman reading from an e-reader
We may not know what she’s reading, but Amazon probably does.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

On paper, Fifty Shades of Grey should never have been a hit. After her Twilight fan fiction (with vampires replaced by BDSM accessories) was rejected by major publishers, E.L. James was only able to publish it electronically with an obscure Australian outfit. Yet the book’s initial failure on paper was reversed by a spectacular digital success. Salman Rushdie quipped, “I’ve never read anything so badly written that got published. It made Twilight look like War and Peace.” It didn’t matter. As word-of-mouth sales mounted, Random House picked up the print rights, and the rest is history. But the Fifty Shades phenomenon would never have happened without the privacy afforded by e-readers. As James’ agent told the New York Times in 2012, “in the 21st century, women have the ability to read this kind of material without anybody knowing what they’re reading, because they can read them on their iPads and Kindles.”

From this angle, the Fifty Shades story is a victory for reader and intellectual privacy. People should be able to read what they want, free of monitoring, shaming, or embarrassment. This is the case whether they are reading Dickens, Mein Kampf, romance novels, or comic books. E-books make this easier. If you want to buy an embarrassing book, you no longer need to go to the bookstore in another town, pay cash, and face a judgmental human sales clerk. You can go instead to Amazon, use one-click purchasing, and “Start reading Fifty Shades of Grey (Fifty Shades, Book 1) on the free Kindle Reading App or on your Kindle in under a minute.” You can put it on your Kindle (or your iPad or even your phone), and read the book on the bus without anyone else knowing what you are doing.

But the ease of digital delivery masks a paradox of e-reader privacy—they know exactly who you are and what, when, how much, and how often you have read your e-books. Amazon knows more about your Kindle reading than the clerk in that bookstore in the next town, more than your librarian, and in fact more than anyone has ever known about how we read. Consider the publicist’s hypothetical early reader of Fifty Shades of Grey, carrying her Kindle on the London Tube. The other passengers might have had no idea what she was reading, but Amazon did. The way that its Kindle is engineered allows Amazon to know not just what she is reading, but whether she has finished the book, what page she is on, how long she has spent on each page, and which passages she might have highlighted, maybe to return to in a more private setting. Paper books might be hard to obtain, but once in hand, they have privacy built into their little paper pages. Electronic books, by contrast, can read you more deeply than you read them. And the problems of e-readers also apply to any digital technology we use to read or view, whether the surveillance-based advertising of the “free” Web or the new Samsung TVs whose voice recognition interface can capture and upload living-room conversations for cloud analysis.

There’s no indication that Amazon has done anything particularly unsettling with this data or that individual user information has leaked (yet). But being watched when we’re reading (or watching videos) isn’t merely disconcerting; as I argue in a new book, it strikes at the core of our ability to make up our minds about the world. When our intellectual privacy is breached, our reading and thinking incline to the boring, the bland, and the mainstream. We don’t click that embarrassing link or read that weird book, even though doing so might change the way we think about the world. Lots of cultural intuitions support this idea—George Orwell’s 1984 being just the most famous—but there is a growing body of social science proof supporting it as well. The PEN American Center recently found that National Security Agency surveillance drove writers to censor their creativity. Another study out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that awareness of surveillance has affected the way Google users search for embarrassing topics. Perhaps the most surprising and chilling finding of that study is that surveillance deters not only queries related to terrorism, but also queries related to things that are legal but embarrassing, like alcoholism, eating disorders, or sex. Simply put, if we care about a society that has diversity, dissent, eccentricity, or weirdness, we need intellectual privacy.

Usually problems like this are dealt with through law. Librarians long ago realized that they needed to know about their patrons’ reading habits in order to help them. They developed professional ethics of confidentiality and lobbied to turn those ethics into laws that protect our library records in all states. When Robert Bork’s movie rental data was leaked during his Supreme Court confirmation in 1987, Congress quickly responded by passing a law protecting the confidentiality of movie rentals—a law that continues to protect not just VHS cassettes, but DVD sales and even the contents of your Netflix queue. In a curious omission, books and e-books are not protected by any federal privacy law. A few states protect book sales as part of their library confidentiality statutes, Colorado protects bookstore records under its state constitution’s version of the First Amendment, and California’s Reader Privacy Act treats book and e-book records as confidential. But that’s it. Our laws are premised on the basic privacy of paper, not the new surveillance abilities of e-readers and smart TVs.

Let me be clear: Electronic books are wonderful, convenient, cheap, and accessible. It’s almost impossible to lose them, and they can hold your place effortlessly across multiple devices. Data about our reading habits can helpfully be used to recommend other things we might like. When such data is used only to help users (or help them buy things), it is one thing. But current law underprotects our sensitive data, and there are insufficient legal protections against Amazon (for example) giving our reader records to the government, or even blackmailing its critics as Uber is alleged to have considered doing to journalists who had become a nuisance. Confidential reading matters so that people can confront ideas on their own terms, from Fifty Shades of Grey to War and Peace, and for all people, including teenagers confused about sexual orientation, political dissenters, religious minorities, and those seeking pornography. Companies need to build their technologies and draft their policies in ways that make clear that intellectual privacy is nurtured. And as we update our laws to take advantage of the digital revolution’s benefits while minimizing its costs, as we tackle the problems of copyright infringement, revenge porn, and data breaches, we should add intellectual privacy (especially for reading) to our list of things to fix.

The publishing success story of Fifty Shades of Grey was an unexpected one, but regardless of its literary merits, it was a beautiful one for anyone who cares about the right to read. We must make sure other weird and unexpected stories in the future have the intellectual privacy they need to succeed as well. We must protect our reader privacy on pixels as well as on paper.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.