Google Book Search Settlement and Reader Privacy

As Google prepares to ask a federal court to approve its creation of a huge digital bookstore and library called Google Book Search, it’s time to ensure that your online book reading remains as private as your offline reading.

Authors and publishers: Visit the "authors and publishers" page to find out how you can stand up for the privacy and anonymity of your readers.

Creepy Google Books logo

If there is no privacy of thought — which includes implicitly the right to read what one wants, without the approval, consent or knowledge of others — then there is no privacy, period.

— Michael Chabon, author,
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: A Novel

...I believe that the fear of tracking will create a chilling effect on my readers, and reduce my readership and therefore my revenue from these books. Moreover, I write these books in order to participate in the public debate on [security] issues. Reduced readership negatively impacts my expressive interests as an author.

— Bruce Schneier, author, Beyond Fear

Other authors signing on:

  • Lawrence Ferlinghetti, publisher, City Lights Books and author, A Coney Island of the Mind
  • Jonathan Lethem, author, Fortress of Solitude
  • Cory Doctorow, author, Little Brother

Last updated: July 2009

The problem

Offline, no one follows you around the library tracking what you browse; the bookstore doesn’t know what you do with a book after you buy it, and if you buy it with cash, they may not even know who you are. You can hide books under your bed from others in your home and give them away anonymously. Courts impose high standards on law enforcement and others seeking access to reading records and librarians have long protected patron privacy as a matter of basic librarian ethics.

But today, we have Google and other companies offering books online. Unlike the privacy you normally experience online, Google’s current practices show it is capable of compiling “dossiers” that reveal our lives in intimate detail. These dossiers may be shared across Google products or with partners, civil litigants, and law enforcement without clear standards for review. Other online bookstores raise similar concerns, but Google is the company seeking federal court approval of what may well become the world’s largest digital book repository -- so it must lead the way in protecting online reader privacy and anonymity.

After filings in early September 2009, Google is going to court in October 2009 to settle with authors and publishers who had brought a class action lawsuit alleging copyright infringement in Google Book Search. Although the potential settlement promises readers an unprecedented ability to search and access a massive collection of digitized books, the agreement raises significant concerns about rights to privacy and free expression especially since it makes no promises about limiting the information Google can collect, retain, share about Google Book Search users and offers users little control over the information about them that Google gathers and stores.

The solution

EFF and the ACLU of Northern California, along with help from the Samuelson Clinic at University of California at Berkeley have demanded that Google, at a minimum, take the following steps to protect reader privacy. If these principles resonate with you, tell Google CEO Eric Schmidt that Google must offer readers a level of online privacy that at least comes to par with the privacy protections we have offline.

Protection Against Disclosure

Readers should be able to read and purchase books on Google Book Search without worrying that the government or a third party may be reading over their shoulder. To ensure that any information it stores linking Google Book Search users to the books they view or purchase is not freely disclosed to the government or third parties, Google must:

  • commit that Google will not disclose information about Google Book Search users to government entities or third parties in a pending civil or administrative action absent a warrant or court order (unless they are barred from doing so by law).
  • notify the user prior to complying with any government or third party request for her or his information, unless forbidden to do so by law or court order.
  • guarantee that Google will not provide the titles of books purchased to any credit card company or other third party directly or indirectly involved in the purchase, including the Book Rights Registry.

Limited Tracking

Just as readers may anonymously browse books in a library or bookstore, readers should be able to search, browse, and preview books on Google Book Search without being forced to identify themselves to Google, At a minimum Google must:

  • ensure that searching and previewing books does not require user registration or the affirmative disclosure of any personal information.
  • commit that Google will not connect any information it collects from an individual’s use of Google Book Search with the same individual’s use of other Google services without her or his specific, informed consent.
  • purge all logging or other information related to individual uses of Google Book Search no later than 30 days after the use to ensure that this information cannot be used to connect particular books viewed to particular computers or users.
  • allow users of anonymity providers, such as Tor, proxy servers, and anonymous VPN providers, to access Google Book Search.

Similarly, in order to protect the privacy of users of institutional subscriptions to Google Book Search, At a mimumum, Google must:

  • collect no information about the browsers or computers of Google Book Search institutional users other than encrypted or anonymous session identifying information from the institution.
  • ensure that information about an individual’s use of an institutional subscription is not connected to the same individual’s use information from other Google services.

User Control

Registered users should have complete control over information Google stores about their book previews and purchases. In order to protect the privacy of registered users of Google’s various services when they purchase and read books on Google Book Search, At a mimumum, Google must:

  • allow registered users to control what other local or remote computer users can see about her or his Google Book Search use through the use of separate password-protected “bookshelves” or other technical means.
  • allow users to anonymously “gift” purchases to accounts that do not have Google Checkout or other identifying features, including gifts to accounts controlled by that user.

    Transparency and Enforceability

    In the interest of transparency and enforceability in the protection of reader privacy, at a minumum, Google must:

    • provide a robust, easy-to-read notice of Google Book Search privacy provisions on the Google Book Search pages themselves and in Google’s privacy policies for the various Google Book Search services.
    • ensure that any commitment Google makes to protecting reader privacy on Google Book Search is legally enforceable and that all data Google collects about U.S. Google Book Search users is stored such that it is subject to U.S. legal protections.
    • ensure that any watermarks or other marking technologies used on Google Book Search for security purposes do not contain identifying information about users and are disclosed to users sufficiently to alert them to the existence of such marks and the type of information they encode.
    • annually publish online, in a conspicuous and easily accessible area of its website, the type and number of requests it receives for information about Google Book Search Users from government entities or third parties.

    Three things you can to today to support reader privacy

    1. Stand up for reader privacy alongside EFF, the ACLU of Northern California, and the Samuelson Clinic at the University of California at Berkeley by sending a message to Google CEO Eric Schmidt in support of a robust privacy policy that covers all the principles listed above.
    2. Email others about this effort. Explain that the Google Book Search Settlement is a critical moment that will define the future of reader privacy, and that speaking out now can help architect a better future as digital book systems develop.
    3. Prepare for additional actions by reading the Deeplinks blog and signing up for EFF's weekly newsletter, EFFector. The campaign for reader privacy does not end here -- other online, digital book services provided by Amazon and must make changes to protect readers' privacy needs in this new era of reading.
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