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Google Book Library Facing Scrutiny

July 25, 2009

Google’s book scanning project is already facing anti-trust criticism and awaiting court approval, and now it has also raised concerns amongst privacy advocates and civil liberties groups.

Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, said on Thursday the groups expressed “grave concern” that the Google Book Search project was “leaving the crucial component of reader privacy behind.”

“Increasing access to books is a very important mission that we strongly support, but readers must not be forced to pay for digital books with their privacy,” they said.

The groups said that the Internet search giant has made “woefully little effort to articulate how it intends to adequately protect reader privacy as part of this giant project.”

“Under its current design, Google Book Search keeps track of what books readers search for and browse, what books they read, and even what they ‘write’ down in the margins.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic of the University of California at Berkeley all took part in writing the letter.

“Given the long and troubling history of government and third party efforts to compel libraries and booksellers to turn over records about readers, it is essential that Google Books incorporate strong privacy protections in both the architecture and policies of Google Book Search,” they said.

“Without these, Google Books could become a one-stop shop for government and civil litigant fishing expeditions into the private lives of Americans.”

Last year, Google reached a settlement with the Authors Guild and Association of American Publishers on a copyright infringement lawsuit they filed in 2005 concerning Google’s plan to scan millions of books and then make them available online.

Google agreed to establish an independent “Books Rights Registry” under the settlement.  This will provide revenue from sales and advertising to authors and publishers that agree to digitize their books.

Readers would be able to preview up to 20 percent of the copyrighted book online, and then pay to see the rest of the work.

A U.S. district court judge is reviewing the settlement in October, and the Justice Department anti-trust regulators are looking into the agreement that allows Google to build the largest digital library in the world and put it on the Web.

Engineering director for Google Books Dan Clancy said in a blog post on Thursday that the company’s commitment to privacy is a “strong privacy policy in place now for Google Books and for all Google products.”

“Privacy is important to us, and we know it’s important to our users, too,” Clancy said. “But our settlement agreement hasn’t yet been approved by the court, and the services authorized by the agreement haven’t been built or even designed yet.”

Drafting a detailed privacy policy was “very difficult,” he added, insisting “we do know that whatever we ultimately build will protect readers’ privacy rights.”

He assured that readers would be able to browse books anonymously and records will not be shared with third parties.

The groups asked that Google “protect reader records by responding only to properly-issued warrants from law enforcement and court orders from third parties” and that any information be held for no longer than 30 days.

The EFF, in addition to the letter, urged visitors to its website to send an email to Schmidt asking him to establish a strong privacy policy for Google Book Search.

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