With the increasing use of digital books and online services to browse, read and buy books, it has become essential to have state laws that safeguard readers. Digital books now outsell paperbacks, and the popularity of e-readers in constantly growing.

The digital book services collect a large amount of personal information including the electronic notes made in the margins; the type of books browsed; and how long each page was viewed. The books people read reveal private, often sensitive information about their religious and political beliefs, their personal lives and their health concerns. Therefore, this data is highly personal and sensitive in nature. The existing California law protects book records of public libraries, but does not protect the book records of private libraries and book sellers. As a result, government and third parties can easily collect these reading records to monitor activists as well as use them in legal proceedings involving insurance disputes, divorce proceedings or custody battles.

California has long recognized the importance of safeguarding reading records and has taken an important step in this direction by passing the Reader Privacy Act of 2011 into law. The law, sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Leland Yee, prohibits government and third parties from disclosing or compelling disclosure of any personal information relating to users reading records. It prevents disclosure of data without a court order in a civil case or a warrant in a criminal case. The law imposes civil penalties on a book service provider for knowingly disclosing a user’s personal information to a government entity in violation of this law. It also requires the government or third parties to give notice to the bookseller as well as provide the bookseller with an opportunity to contest the order demanding the information. The booksellers are also required to prepare a report if they surpass 30 requests for information.

Clearly, this law is a key for updating privacy laws in the digital age.  It remains to be seen if this approach will gain traction in other states or on the federal level.

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