A broad civil society coalition is sounding the alarm on Big Tech and Big Publishing’s unchecked power over digital books—and surveillance of those who read them.
25+ human rights organizations are calling for a Congressional investigation into Big Tech and Publishing’s overreaching control of the content, reader data, and existence of digital books. Released today, the coalition letter focuses on the cascading harms of a small number of corporations controlling Americans’ ability to read and create books—rights that are essential to a functioning democracy.
This letter is the first time that such a broad constituency has called for federal action on these matters. Signatories include the Athena Coalition, Color of Change, Reproaction, MediaJustice, UltraViolet, Presente.org, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, The Greenlining Institute, Woodhull Freedom Fund, the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, and more—with representation from groups spanning civil rights, LGBTQ+, anti-surveillance, anti-book ban, racial justice, reproductive justice, immigration, labor, and antimonopoly interests. The letter was organized by activists at queer women-led digital rights organization Fight for the Future.
The full letter text and list of signatories is available at BattleForLibraries.com/congress.
For centuries, people have read books without being surveilled, wondering if what they’re reading is what the author wrote, or worrying that their book might disappear. These rights parallel a long history of battles to protect the right to read anonymously as well as to resist censorship and combat exclusion in publishing. With the increasing popularity of digital books, such battles have entered a new, much more opaque playing field.
The letter reads in part: “For years, authors have been sounding the alarm about the crisis of discriminatory practices in book publishing. Such behaviors stand only to be exacerbated when hidden behind the facade of an app like OverDrive’s Libby or Amazon’s Kindle. We’re already seeing what widespread censorship can do in communities around this country: eliminate education on the history of slavery, ban LGBTQ+ stories from public and school libraries, threaten access to critical information on reproductive healthcare, and force the bigoted views of a few into the experience of thousands. This is only the beginning.”
The letter also points to a recent report detailing the reader-to-data broker pipeline that the world’s largest publisher, Elsevier, has quietly established for students and any reader of their digital publications. Concerningly, Elsevier tracks more than what books someone reads—it surveils readers’ search and browsing history across the whole web, collects their locations, and builds profiles based on inferences from this data. Such wholesale exposure of readers’ intimate personal data could have life-altering implications when data brokers sell it to law enforcement, vigilantes, hackers, stalkers, potential employers, or landlords. The act of reading a digital book should never result in threats to a reader’s safety and future.
Lia Holland (they/she), Campaigns and Communications Director at Fight for the Future, who organized the letter, said: “Big Tech and Big Publishing teaming up to control the future of books would mean an end to the ability to read books privately. Reading is going to out people who receive gender-affirming and abortion care. Books are going to be invisibly censored at the whims of moralizing corporate shareholders. In fact, this may already be happening and we just can’t see it. With libraries like the Internet Archive facing multiple lawsuits for trying to offer alternatives to this literary hellscape, it’s clear lawmakers have got to step in. We need urgent federal action to ensure readers aren’t being surveilled and authors aren’t being erased.”
Brenda Victoria Castillo (she/her), President & CEO of signatory National Hispanic Media Coalition said: “Access to information is a powerful tool for Latines to participate in our democracy. Book bans aim to limit our power by limiting our access to stories about resilience, justice, and leadership by and for our community. As the lead organization in the Latinx Publishing Coalition, the National Hispanic Media Coalition calls on Congress to protect our democracy from book bans and harmful digital rights violations.”
Ricci Levy (she/her), President & CEO at signatory Woodhull Freedom Foundation said: “In the realm of human rights, digital erasure threatens our collective knowledge, while libraries stand as bastions defending freedom of access. Censorship and reader surveillance breach the trust vital to intellectual exploration. Let our pursuit of knowledge be liberated, safeguarding the essence of our shared heritage.”
Sean O’Brien (he/him), Founder of signatory Yale Privacy Lab, said: “The war over publishing has gone too far—readers deserve the ability to learn and grow from a vast collection of digital books. Without that freedom, societies become totalitarian walled gardens. That’s great for the bottom line of the media giants and terrible for future generations and democracy at large.”
Signatory Athena Coalition, a coalition of civil society and worker organizations focused on Amazon’s abuses of power, said: “It runs counter to our democracy that a corporation like Amazon should have the power to control the distribution of books, goods and services, and computer power. Amazon has already shown that it will use its power over ebooks to the detriment of authors, libraries, and the public. Congress must act now to prevent this mega-corporation from becoming even more concentrated and powerful, and less accountable to our democratic institutions and the public.”