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9 privacy settings users should have in ebooks

Opinion - privacy settings to be implemented by ebook platforms

Ebook platforms are very slow in introducing transparent privacy rules and settings. Here are some ideas on what features to include to give users the real control over their personal data.

When using a social media app, a user assumes lots of data are being shared. Social media are all about sharing.

Things are different when it comes to ebooks. Reading is a very personal and private activity. When using a book-reading app or an e-reader, many users assume their personal usage data are being collected by the service at all. You will be surprised to learn how much your ebook store may know about you.

Privacy options offered by ebook platforms are far behind what social networks offer. There are many things to be improved and many options to be introduced. This post lists a few ideas on how to do it.

What options would you like to see in you e-reader or book-reading app? Let’s share the experience on Twitter and Facebook.

Privacy settings users should have in ebooks

1. Ability to use a book-reading app without the need to sign in

Why is this setting related to privacy? When you are not signed in to an online service, you don’t risk that your private data is processed by that service, or – what’s much worse – leaks from it.

Which ebook platform did you choose to read digital books? Is it Amazon Kindle, Nook, Apple Books, Kobo, or Google Play Books? Do you use its book-reading app on your tablet or smartphone? Can you use this app without the need to sign in?

My primary book-reading app is Amazon Kindle, and my primary reading device is an iPhone. If you are an Amazon Kindle user, you know the pain. The only way to make the Kindle for iOS app work is register it with your Amazon credentials.

The thing is that – although this app is brilliant when it comes to settings, look, and performance – over 50% of books I read do not come from the Kindle Store. These ebooks are in Polish, and they are not available on Amazon. I buy them in Polish ebook stores or borrow from my local public library and import them as personal documents to the Kindle cloud library.

I would love to have an option to use my book-reading app without the need to register it. Obviously, the ebook platform is more than welcome to inform a non-registered user about what features and options would not be available. I also wouldn’t mind receiving frequent reminders to sign in.

2. Ability to control privacy at different levels

Many users have more than one device connected to their ebook platform account, making the most use of seamless syncing of the latest read position, highlights & notes, reading stats, and other features.

Therefore, your book-reading app or an e-reader is not the only place where you should be able to control privacy settings.

Account level

From time to time it’s good to visit the ebook platform’s web dashboard to see the status of your account, currently connected devices, and all added books.

In this account hub, the user should have the ability to overview and change privacy settings for each connected device or app – either one by one or in bulk.

Device or app level

You should also be able to control the settings on the current device or app. For the purpose of clarity, only the settings for this particular app or device should be available.

Book level

If I can change privacy settings for the current app or device, why wouldn’t I have the same possibility for a single book? There may be books I don’t plan to read actively (making highlights or notes), and I’m going to read them on one device, so why should I send any data back to the ebook platform?

It does not seem to be a huge challenge. A simple “do not send data” option could be available in a book reading interface, for instance, where formatting options are displayed.

3. Ability to learn which data is used for which purpose

In book-reading apps or on e-readers that are connected to leading ebook platforms, lots of data are being sent back and forth in order to provide full functionality. Are you aware how many of your activities may be collected and processed by your ebook store?

I don’t mind sharing what ebooks I read and how. Online services can’t operate without collecting and processing usage data. My problem is that, opposite to Google or social media services, ebook platforms are far behind in developing a transparent privacy policy. For instance, Amazon explains that data is collected for “marketing and product improvements.”

In general, each bit of data that is being collected by an online service, serves the following purposes:

  • To provide functionality
  • To make improvements and develop product updates
  • To adjust marketing offers to personal interests
  • To sell data to third-party companies

What needs to be done by ebook platforms – and this it the goal of utmost importance – is to clearly inform users about how their personal data is being processed and for what purposes.

4. Ability to disable data collection by kind

Let’s assume, the user knows how her or his personal data is being used by the ebook platform. It’s not the end of a topic. Just the opposite.

The user has to have freedom to decide which data to share and for what purposes.

Let’s assume that the ebook platform collects usage data for three purposes: functionality, improvements, marketing.

I would like to have an option that lets me decide which purpose I agree to send my personal data for. I would most probably uncheck product improvements and marketing offers, leaving only the option that provides the full functionality of the service.

Obviously, even after unchecking improvements and marketing, 100% service functionality should be preserved. There is no reason to disable book or highlights syncing if the user doesn’t want the usage data to be processed for displaying personalized ads.

5. Ability to disable data collection by feature

Major ebook platforms offer common features, such as:

  • Syncing of last-reached position in a book
  • Managing, syncing, and backing up highlights and notes
  • Dictionary and reference tools
  • Sharing actions
  • Library and in-book search
  • Reading stats and achievements

One step further in giving users more control over their privacy would be to provide options to disable data collection by major features.

I would be ready to share data about the last-read position, but I want to keep the highlights and notes for myself, and don’t want the ebook platform to collect even a single line of data about it. I would also disable sharing reading stats and dictionary usage.

6. A smart system that connects features and privacy

I am aware that the more privacy settings the ebook platform provides, the harder it is to control them by the user.

That’s why it’s significant to develop a user interface that makes it easy to combine features and privacy settings.

The easiest solution is to make certain features unreachable once you disable certain privacy settings.

For instance, you won’t be able to sync your highlights with the ebook platform server if you disable data sharing on this particular feature. The setting for highlights in the book-reading app or in a web dashboard should become dimmed and unreachable. The information should be provided that to enable it you should enable this and that privacy setting.

7. Ability to delete usage data the moment the book is being archived

An ebook platform keeps usage data for a certain time. It can be 30 days or half a year. Why not giving the user a chance to have a bit of control over it?

The easiest way would be to provide an option that enables the user to delete data about a particular book the moment this book is being removed from a device. Such a setting could be available in the app’s or device’s settings page, saying “remove book data from the account after archiving it.”

In other words, I can allow my ebook platform to collect and keep data about the books for as long as they are downloaded to each of the connected devices. An action that removes the book from the last device or app – which means the book is only stored on the ebook platform’s server – is initiating an automated process that immediately removes usage data about this book from the account’s data sheet, instead of keeping it for a fixed period of time.

8. A web dashboard for all privacy-related settings

Let’s go back to the account dashboard the user can access from the web. There should be an easy way to control all privacy settings in a single and user-friendly interface.

The best way to do it would be to have a table of privacy settings where on one axis you have connected devices, and on the other the settings to control.

9. An easy way to manually remove usage data

An option to request the ebook platform to remove all usage data collected so far for the account should be easily available not only on the main user dashboard, but also in any connected app or device.

It should be a one-tap activity in the settings section of the app, saying “request to remove all usage data” accompanied by information how it may affect the user’s experience.

This feature should come with an option enabling the user to receive by email all the data that was collected by the ebook platform so far.

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