The Perils of Social Reading

36 Pages Posted: 30 Mar 2012 Last revised: 19 Mar 2013

See all articles by Neil M. Richards

Neil M. Richards

Washington University School of Law; Yale Information Society Project; Stanford Center for Internet and Society

Date Written: March 29, 2012


Our law currently treats records of our reading habits under two contradictory rules: rules mandating confidentiality and rules permitting disclosure. Recently, the rise of the social Internet has created more of these records and more pressures on when and how they should be shared. Companies like Facebook, in collaboration with many newspapers, have ushered in the era of “social reading,” in which what we read may be “frictionlessly shared” with our friends and acquaintances. Disclosure and sharing are on the rise.

This Article sounds a cautionary note about social reading and frictionless sharing. Social reading might have some appeal, but the ways in which we set up the defaults for sharing matter a great deal. Our reader records implicate our intellectual privacy — the protection of reading from surveillance and interference so that we can read freely, widely, and without inhibition. I argue that the choices we make about how to share have real consequences and that frictionless sharing is neither frictionless nor is it really “sharing,” at least as we typically understand the term. The sharing of our reading habits is special. Such sharing should be conscious and only occur after meaningful notice.

The stakes in this debate are immense. We are quite literally rewiring the public and private spheres for a new century. Choices we make now — about the boundaries between our individual and social selves, between consumers and companies, and between citizens and the state — will have unforeseeable ramifications for the societies our children and grandchildren inherit. Even the setting of defaults we can opt out of will shape behavior and establish baselines of “normal” for our societies. We should make choices that preserve our intellectual privacy, not destroy it. This Article suggests practical ways to do just that.

Keywords: Privacy, Intellectual Privacy, Facebook, Social Readers, Reading, Confidentiality, Data Protection, Sensitive Data

Suggested Citation

Richards, Neil M., The Perils of Social Reading (March 29, 2012). 101 Georgetown Law Journal 689 (2013)., Available at SSRN:

Neil M. Richards (Contact Author)

Washington University School of Law ( email )

Campus Box 1120
St. Louis, MO 63130
United States
314.935.4794 (Phone)


Yale Information Society Project ( email )

493 College St
New Haven, CT CT 06520
United States

Stanford Center for Internet and Society ( email )

559 Nathan Abbott Way
Stanford, CA 94305-8610
United States

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