According to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s conditional veto statement, “Citizens of this State should be permitted to read what they choose without unnecessary government intrusion.” It’s hard to argue with that! Personally, I think we should also be permitted to read what we choose without corporate surveillance.
As previously reported in The Digital Reader, the bill passed in September by wide margins in both houses of the New Jersey State Legislature and would have codified the right to read ebooks without letting the government and everybody else knowing about it.
I wrote about some problems I saw with the bill. Based on a California law focused on law enforcement, the proposed NJ law added civil penalties on booksellers who disclosed the personal information of users without a court order. As I understood it, the bill could have prevented online booksellers from participating in ad networks (they all do!).
Governor Christie’s veto statement pointed out more problems. The proposed law didn’t explicitly prevent the government from asking for personal reading data, it just made it against the law for a bookseller to comply. So, for example, a local sheriff could still ask Amazon for a list of people in his town reading an incriminating book. If Amazon answered, somehow the reader would have to:
- find out that Amazon had provided the information
- sue Amazon for $500.
Another problem identified by Christie was that the proposed law imposed privacy burdens on booksellers stronger than those on libraries. Under another law, library records in New Jersey are subject to subpoena, but bookseller records wouldn’t be. That’s just bizarre.
In New Jersey, a governor can issue a “Conditional Veto”. In doing so, the governor outlines changes in a bill that would allow it to become law. Christie’s revisions to the Reader Privacy Act make the following changes:
- The civil penalties are stripped out of the bill. This allows Gov. Christie to position himself and NJ as “business-friendly”.
- A requirement is added preventing the government from asking for reader information without a court order or subpoena. Christie gets to be on the side of liberty. Yay!
- It’s made clear that the law applies only to government snooping, and not to promiscuous data sharing with ad networks. Christie avoids the ire of rich ad network moguls.
- Child porn is carved out of the definition of “books”. Being tough on child pornography is one of those politically courageous positions that all politicians love.
The resulting bill, which was quickly reintroduced in the State Assembly, is stronger but narrower. It wouldn’t apply in situations like the recent Adobe Digital Editions privacy breach, but it should be more effective at stopping “unnecessary government intrusion”. I expect it will quickly pass the Legislature and be signed into law. A law that properly addresses the surveillance of ebook reading by private companies will be much more complicated and difficult to achieve.
I’m not a fan of his by any means, but Chris Christie’s version of the Reader Privacy Act is a sodid step in the right direction and would be an excellent model for other states. We could use a law like it on the national level as well.