Google Book Settlement: Serving Ads, Serving Google, Not Serving Privacy

Elisabeth A. Jones and Joseph W. Janes of The Information School at the University of Washington recently published an important academic paper about the privacy implications of Google Books entitled “Anonymity in a World of Digital Books: Google Books, Privacy, and the Freedom to Read” (registration required).

Jones and Janes note that the “the fundamental goal of the American public library has for more than a century been to support the freedom of inquiry, and thereby the freedom of expression, necessary to the functioning of a free society.”  That freedom of inquiry requires that library patrons, or Google Books users, are afforded a modicum of privacy to read that which they want to read, without fear of reprisal or exposure.

As the library world stands now, the American Library Association Code of Ethics places a very high value on patron privacy, and Jones and Janes quote from the relevant passage which states that librarians should “protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.”  They also note that many state laws prohibit the release of library data to unauthorized third parties, some even going so far as to specifically exempt library records from typically broad FOIA laws.

Google, on the other hand, takes a very dim view of the freedom of inquiry that is enshrined in the ALA’s code of ethics – at least if Google’s top executives are to be taken at their word:

Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf: “Nothing you do ever goes away, and nothing you do ever escapes notice. There isn’t any privacy, get over it.”

Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt: We know where you are, we know what you like.”

Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

Moreover, Google’s own policies reflect this view of readers’ privacy rights.  As the authors note, “[t]he Google Books privacy policy explicitly states that Google will collect several types of information. . . and reserves the company’s right to aggregate usage data from Google Books with other data linked to users’ Google Accounts—so your book purchase history or personalized reading lists may be combined with your usage data from Google Search, Gmail, Google Reader, Google Maps, Picasa, or any of the company’s myriad other services.”

As OBA followers know, we’ve long stated that Google’s monetization of readers’ information – not public interest – is the driving force behind this project, and we have long argued that there are critical privacy implications of Google Books as well.  The authors sum up many of our concerns very succinctly, so we’ll just let them speak for themselves:

By stripping away many of the traditional safeguards on reader privacy— whether legal, ethical, or situational—shifting free-of-charge, publicly available reading from libraries to Google Books complicates the capacity of the context to support truly unfettered inquiry and knowledge diffusion. For all the reasons already noted—controversial interests, the ability of reading material to reveal other things about the reader, or pure embarrassment—a lack of privacy with regard to the selection of reading materials can significantly chill individuals’ desire and/or ability to explore as broadly as they might wish.

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Important Dates

December 14, 2009
Notice begins

January 28, 2010
Deadline for authors to opt out of the settlement

January 28, 2010
Deadline to file objections and/or amicus briefs

February 4, 2010
Deadline to file notice of intent to appear at Fairness Hearing

February 4, 2010
DOJ response

February 11, 2010
Plaintiffs move for final approval

February 18, 2010
Final Fairness Hearing

March 31, 2011
Deadline to claim Books and Inserts

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