Google Book Search and Reader Privacy: A Consideration and Call to Action

April 29th, 2009 · 12 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

In the coming months, much will be written and said about the Google Book Search settlement. While I do support it in principle, I, like others, have niggles and quibbles and some distinct worries about the specifics. Part of the problem, of course, was that a subset of interested parties created the class, a subset of interested parties negotiated the settlement, and it just now that everyone is able to look at the final results and ask questions.

It’s a settlement only a mother could love.

Google, of course, won in a big way. In fact, they won bigger than they would have had the Authors Guild (AG) and American Association of Publishers (AAP) not brought suit. Where once others might have been persuaded to create ways to search books (and, hopefully, bring in some extra cash for authors and publishers), the settlement, if it fails to be approved, proves that book search is too rich for most companies’ blood.

I don’t think anyone believes the publishing industry can or will manage an effective program to scan, what?, millions of books, clean up the texts, create really useful and useable search. For all the talk about publishers controlling what gets fed to search engines, the truth of the matter is that without indexing and serving everything, many, many books will go undiscovered. You cannot expect effective search to take place when you only index a precis.

If the settlement is approved, then Google owns lots and lots of readers. We’re locked into the Google service if we want the best possible search results. Yet our concerns were not addressed in the settlement. One such worry is the privacy factor.

Every move we make online is tracked and traceable. Generally, this is not a concern; so much data is being crunched that individuals are rarely singled out for close examination. But this audit trail can be used against us, and I hadn’t really considered the implications of my online activity in light of GBS until I read a recent call from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Physical libraries have long held firm against law enforcement seeking to use customer records against individuals (and it’s just one more reason to love librarians!). What we read should remain private to us. However, once we, as a society move beyond the physical into the digital, new rules seemingly apply. Now is the time to ensure that the GBS includes consumer privacy protections.

This might seem like a “what are the chances of that happening?” worry, but history has proved this is a real concern. Just because my reading is done in the digital realm doesn’t mean I should give up basic rights of privacy. The EFF is asking authors who believe lack of reasonable protection to add their voices by May 1st. Though the judge has extended certain deadlines, it is important that the reader perspective — woefully neglected in the original settlement — be considered before it’s too late.

I’ve included the EFF call to action below. If you are an author or know an author who shares my concern, please consider becoming involved.

We are putting together a group of authors (or their heirs or assigns) who are concerned about the Google Book Search settlement and its effect on the privacy and anonymity of readers. In particular, we are looking for authors who fear that Google’s tracking of online book browsing, reading, and purchase will have a “chilling effect” on their readership. We are also interested in hearing from authors who themselves might feel chilled in their own online reading habits if Google is allowed to track every page or paragraph they read. We plan to file papers with the court on behalf of those authors that object to any settlement that fails to provide the same privacy protections for readers in the digital world that apply to reading physical books from libraries, bookstores, etc. These include protections from subpoenas, law enforcement investigations, and other forms of surveillance and profiling.

Note: In order to participate, you must still own rights in some or all of a “book.” For how the settlement defines a “book,” see below. (Yes, we recognize that defining a book to an audience of authors is a bit surreal, but the court will pay careful attention to this definition, so we have to pay close attention to how it is worded.)

Deadline: All authors must have given us affirmative approval to file on their behalf by May 1, 2009. Earlier is better. Send your approval, plus a list of the books you own rights to, to: authors@eff.org. We’d also appreciate a short note about why you think anonymity and privacy for your readers is important to the market for your work or to your own reading habits.

File Under: Square Pegs

12 responses so far ↓

  • Mary // Apr 30, 2009 at 6:14 am

    Do you have a link to the EFF site for this? I can’t find it there? Also, I think you meant May 1, 2009 (not 2005).

  • Kassia Krozser // Apr 30, 2009 at 8:27 am

    Mary — I haven’t found it on the site yet. I received the communication via email and expect there will be more forthcoming (given this week’s changes in timing on the settlement, perhaps the EFF is looking at the impact on the dates as well. I’ll post the link when I get it and/or follow up with them if I haven’t heard back by later today.

    Good catch on the typo. My old eyes missed that!

  • Musematic » Reading, Privacy, and the Google Book Settlement // Apr 30, 2009 at 12:49 pm

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  • Google Book Settlement Link Dump Awesomeness at pureinformation.org // May 1, 2009 at 7:48 am

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  • Richard Hargis // May 1, 2009 at 10:59 am

    Whereas privacy is important for readers, authors/publishers, as I understand it are to be paid by GBS for “clicks” on their ads. I would question the reason for tracking page reads: if it’s for reasons other that paid clicks or reads, which Google does not disclose a dollar amount, then the activity begs a serious question as to the invasion of privacy. Too many restrictions applied to GBS may prove tantamount to shooting ourselves in the foot.

  • Perry Brass // May 1, 2009 at 11:17 am

    Google Book Search is a huge goldmine for Google (wonderful how the two words mix well with each other). They have access to millions of pages of content on which to place ads, that will never be compensated to the content providers. This would be like the NY Times offering writers compensation only when readers clip out coupons on their pages and send them in: that is the way publisher compensation works for Book Search. I have 11 books in this program. They have generated thousands and thousands of pages of “view,” and I have been compensated nada. Nothing. The alternative though, for publishers, is even a rawer deal: to be left out of the most powerful search engine in the world. So something needs to be done to Google Book Search to keep the entire writing and publishing world from getting the shaft, slowly.

    Perry Brass, author of Carnal Sacraments, A Historical Novel of the Future, and other books.

  • Charles Jacobs // May 1, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    Congratulations on pointing out a concern that frankly whizzed right by me, just as it slipped by so many others. Reader privacy is a crucially important issue. We can’t suffer a “literary version” of the Patriot Act. Many of us hoped that personal surveillance without warrants disappeared along with George Bush. While the Google program is a far cry from the surveillance activities in the Bush regime, I worry over any random incursion into the personal lives of U.S. citizens that have not first been approved by the court. You can add my name to the list of objectors to the Google program until this problem is resolved.

  • Charles Jacobs // May 1, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    Congratulations on pointing out a concern that frankly whizzed right by me, just as it slipped by so many others. Reader privacy is a crucially important issue. We can’t suffer a “literary version” of the Patriot Act. Many of us hoped that personal surveillance without warrants disappeared along with George Bush. While the Google program is a far cry from the surveillance activities in the Bush regime, I worry over any random incursion into the personal lives of U.S. citizens that have not first been approved by the court. You can add my name to the list of objectors to the Google program until this problem is resolved.

  • Peter Jurmu // May 1, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    There was a third alternative, Perry, at least as far as the AG and AAP (who together comprise the ‘They’ in this situation) are concerned. You can’t stop an idea as great as Book Search, and I mean ‘great’ as much in terms of its momentum as its quality (thanks to Google’s size and clout), but They could have not presumed to speak for every living author and reader. And, if They had to do that for the sake of bargaining power, then perhaps They could have reached a deal that addresses these and other concerns, which are neither unreasonable nor obscure.

    I have difficulty believing, however, that They or Google are necessarily conniving to steal information or track hapless readers. These provisions and protections that organizations like the EFF want included in the settlement ought to have been included from the start–and They ought to have insisted on them as parts a list of preconditions–not as countermeasures but as safeguards against the uglier parts of human nature that can be exercised through one large entity controlling such an amount of cultural capital.

  • ???? ???» ????????? // May 3, 2009 at 2:28 am

    [...] ????, ?????? ????? ????, ??????? ????? Booksquare, ??? ??????? ?????????? ?? ?????? ???????. [...]

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