Concerns about Google Book Search and its potential effects on reader privacy are spreading widely in the wake of the joint action alert issued by EFF and the ACLU of Northern California.

Copyright scholar Pam Samuelson recently investigated the scope of the settlement in an editorial titled "The Audacity of the Google Book Search Settlement," noting that "...Google has negotiated a settlement agreement designed to give it a compulsory license to all books in copyright throughout the world forever."

The massive potential reach of Google's service makes the company's relative silence on privacy all the more problematic. A New York Times editorial praises the potential of more equitable, complete access to the world's knowledge, but cautions against the immense power that Google will then have:

Google could collect data on what books people read and create a dossier of their political views and other information. Google should generally do a better job of showing how it will respect privacy, and [Google Book Search] is no exception.

Libraries are keenly familiar with the fact that intellectual freedom depends on the ability to read books privately -- there is a long-standing tradition of libraries upholding the privacy of patrons and defending against invasive requests for reading histories. The American Library Association recently participated in a panel discussion of the Google Book Search Settlement and expressed concerns about the chilling effects proliferated by a lack of privacy protections:

[Dr. Inouye, Director of the ALA Office for Information Technology Policy,] went on to say that inadequate privacy protections could also produce a chilling effect on intellectual freedom, as users are less likely to explore particular lines of inquiry if they feel uncomfortable with uncertain information gathering techniques employed by Google or the Book Rights Registry. As a contrast to the paltry user privacy protections in the settlement, Inouye noted the extensive sections outlining cumbersome security provisions inserted to make sure rightholders content is secure.

And yesterday, we posted about an NPR story on Google Book Search, which featured author Jonathan Lethem's perspective on privacy's unique role in shaping a reader's relationship with books.

The growing chorus of voices shows that Google must make some serious, concrete commitments to privacy if it wants to adopt the responsibility of serving the world's books. You can join us -- tell Google to build privacy protections in Google Book Search. And if you know authors or publishers that may want to join in the effort to protect reader privacy, tell them to contact us directly at or review the more detailed information we've put together for authors and publishers.1

  • 1. Authors and publishers may be interested in knowing that they can still participate in the settlement proceeds (that is, get paid based on use of their books in Google Books Products) if they join in the privacy objection and the settlement is ultimately approved.

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