Does buying eBooks mean we must sell our soul to Big Brother?

Akasha epub logoDoes buying an electronic book make you into a pawn of big brother, who knows your every book purchase, can delete any book you purchase on a whim, and can change what the books say at any time? A few years ago Richard Stallman (the famous open source advocate) wrote essentially that warning against electronic books. On the occasion of publishing an eBook the other day I came across my republishing of his letter over on Scribd and thought it would be worthwhile to revisit his warning because it seems both highly insightful and not-quite-valid at the same time. The things he warns against - big brother style dangers - are somewhat true but the market has developed in ways he didn't seem to expect.

My latest book is proof of a way out of the mess Stallman described. The book is available under Creative Commons, with the book source text published in the open and anybody is free to edit the book. The book itself describes an open source toolchain that is used to build the book. The toolchain - see: http://akashacms.com/plugins/epub.html - produces EPUB3 books, and as proof of its validity the book has been published on several electronic book marketplaces.

Big Brother has invaded our Kindles

Stallmans warning came down to a compare/contrast exercise talking about the anonymity one enjoys buying a book with cash and the control you have over the physical object after buying it, versus the personal information you have to disclose when buying an electronic book, and the proprietary nature of these things. Namely, buy a physical book, or anything else, in a brick-and-mortar store and you have the freedom of anonymous purchasing with cash. By contrast, buy anything like a book through an online store, or using a credit card, and you're handing over personal information to a 3rd party. The electronic book is more worrisome, however, because the eBook marketplaces can silently update the book or delete the book.

That has happened. First, eBooks are routinely updated (so the author can fix mistakes - BTW, my book has a couple mistakes and I will be updating it shortly) with updates delivered silently to the eBook reader. Sometimes the eBook marketplaces decide there's something wrong with a particular book and just delete it off peoples eBook readers. So far this has been done for legitimate reasons, but in the book 1984 we were warned of Big Brother who employed swarms of people to rewrite history and make all history books change at the swoop of an electronic pen.

That's the risk of the current electronic book system. That our history can be rewritten through the collusion of electronic book marketplaces and those who would rewrite history. "They" can change the eBooks in most eBook readers just by sending commands out over the Internet.

Freedom and Anonymity by paying with cash

Further, we lack certain freedoms that owners of paperbound books have. We don't "own" the eBooks we "buy" through places like amazon.com or play.google.com. We might not even have the physical file on a device that we own, and even if we do is it possible to extract that file and use it somewhere else? Can you reach into a Kindle and grab the files its holding? Can you lend an electronic book to someone else? Can you sell an electronic book on a used eBook market?

Being Stallman, an underlying tone to his warning was to suggest some kind of open source model could be applied to electronic books. The current system restricts our freedoms, but he's suggesting there ought to be a way to produce electronic books in a way that doesn't restrict freedoms. I've just developed some software - and in general proved that, today, the conditions Stallman warned about have changed to the point where it's now possible to write an open source eBook, publish the source code in an open repository, and it's buildable with open source tools. The question would be how to earn a living doing so.

The real risk isn't just "they can change the books and change history". Stallman pointed to another issue, the loss of anonymity while making eBook purchases. The eBook markets know exactly who you are and where you live because credit card companies require this information to validate the purchase.

The Government is already snooping on our every move

Recent revelations that the US Government has made deals with internet giants like Google and Facebook to gather intelligence data indicates that the Government is interested in tracking all our habits. Big Brother meet the power of big data machines of the sort Google and Facebook have built. The Government is also interested in book buying habits as well as other purchases. I went over this way back in 2002 when the Total Information Awareness System was first exposed -- that government program sought to gather all data about everyone, and use algorithms to sift through all activities in order to detect patterns that suspiciously looked like terrorism preparations.

Think of it as being a precursor to the systems Edward Snowden exposed.

A big part of the TIA vision is collecting all commerce data. That means the NSA will know that you buy groceries every Tuesday, and exactly what you buy, because it's all on credit card transaction records. Or that you like buying audio books from Big Finish in England, making it an international credit card purchase, probably marking you as a Doctor Who fan.

Is it important that the NSA learns you have a hankering for soapy romance novels? Probably not. However, the principle is that governments with excruciatingly detailed information gathering apparatus are usually looking at excruciatingly detailed control over the people.

Who's the Terrorist

The larger issue is that there's a somewhat loosely defined slippery slope going on. Supposedly the Government is doing all this spying to catch "terrorists" and us regular folk won't get caught up in the dragnet. Ignore the fact that Governments often screw up and people sometimes sit on death row for decades over crimes they didn't commit, or government agents swoop in to capture a dangerous criminal based on a false tip and sometimes end up killing the victim, etc etc etc ...

Who are the "terrorists" this week?

For example ... a couple years ago the Obama Administration was supporting Syrian radicals fighting against the Bashar al-Assad regime. Today, some of those same radicals are fighting under the ISIS banner and are now public enemy #1. One year they're freedom fighters, the next year they're terrorists. Great.

Just when do we start seeing that kind of law enforcement being used at home?

Are electronic books proprietary and easier to control? Nope

But let's get back to electronic books.

A big part of the problem Stallman describes is that electronic book formats are supposedly proprietary, and are therefore controlled by amazon.com.

That basic fact may be true of Kindle books - but it's not generally true. Today EPUB is the lingua franca of electronic books. It's an open standard, published in the open, and is quite easy to implement. I've written an implementation myself - see: http://akashacms.com/plugins/epub.html - that's fully open source, easy to use.

The documentation guide is available as a Creative Commons book, with the source code published on a github repository. Anybody can download the book's source, the AkashaEPUB toolchain, and build my book. Or they can buy it via Amazon.com and other stores.

The archive.org website (and some other sites) is stuffed to the gills with EPUB books that are out of print public domain books.

All this is proof positive that EPUB is a proper open standard that can be used to produce proper openly available books. EPUB3 is at the cutting edge of electronic book capabilities, because it supports modern web standards like HTML5, CSS3, playing video or audio files, and JavaScript for interaction with the book. Yes, we'll finally have books we can interact with. You can experience that today with books on Apple's iBook marketplace.

The possibility exists to have electronic books while preserving our freedoms. The problem is - how to be properly compensated while publishing electronic books that way. Hurm....? Ideas anyone?

The Danger of eBooks - Richard Stallman by David Herron