Reading, Privacy, and the Google Book Settlement

Posted by on Thursday April 30 2009

An excellent article by Kassia Kroszer on Booksquare nicely sums it all up (saving me a heck of a lot of time); here’s just one excerpt:

“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.”

“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.

“…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.”

In principle, anyone who has published a book — and museums publish books all the time — is a party to this class action settlement unless they actively opt out. (I did a quick test search and confirmed that at least one of my museum’s catalogs has been scanned and is in Google Book Search.) I don’t know if many museum libraries would subscribe to the Google Books database (access to all 7 million or so books scanned won’t be cheap), but if so they would be faced with the same privacy violation challenges as any public library.

It isn’t easy to get a grip on all the issues hidden in this Where’s Waldo? settlement. Take this bit of explanation on the Google Public Policy blog:

“…for users in the U.S.:
* When you find the book you’re searching for, you’ll be able to preview 20% of the book over the Internet from anywhere in the U.S. If you want to look at the whole thing, you’ll be able to go down to your public library where there will be a computer station with access to the whole book for free. And if you don’t want to leave home or want a copy for yourself, you’ll be able to purchase access to an electronic copy of the book. As always, if the book is old enough to be in the public domain, you’ll be able to download the whole book for free.”

Note that throw-away line “for users in the U.S.” In other words, not for me, for example. Only for readers in one country. That isn’t exactly earth-shaking; it’s a very limited revolution in “access”.

And look closely at: “…public library where there will be a computer station with access to the whole book for free.” Accurate to a fault: a computer. One. Only one connected computer per library is allowed under the settlement. The revolution will have to wait in line.

“…you’ll be able to purchase access to an electronic copy of the book.” Again, acutely accurate: you’ll be able to purchase access, not the book. You won’t be able to lend the book to a friend, or anything else you have a right to do under the Copyright Law’s First Sale Doctrine. See the comment by “Jill”:

“Expanding access suggests that you are making the books themselves more available. You are not doing that. You are only surfacing some percentage of the books’ content and then pushing the user towards a set of alternate access channels (bookstores, libraries, etc.) where the user may or may not actually be able to get access to the content. You are actually collaborating in the creation of a new model for reading — that of non-ownership access to content.”

[Even the libraries won't own the books, only their access subscription.]

There’s an excellent, very readable interview with Prof. James Grimmelman of New York Law School, about the Google Books Settlement. It’s funny and enlightening, and it lays out the issues in a way anyone can understand. I recommend it to anyone who’s still confused or skeptical about what this arcane legal settlement has to do with …us.

[Update: The settlement deadline has been delayed for another four months.]

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