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Google Book Search Privacy Under Fire

Privacy groups tell Internet users to e-mail Google CEO Eric Schmidt to demand Book Search data protection.

Raising the specter of prejudicial treatment from government and industry as a consequence of one's reading habits, a coalition of cyber and civil liberties groups is urging Internet users to e-mail Google CEO Eric Schmidt to ask that Google's Book Search service provide stronger privacy protections.

In an open letter to Schmidt published on Thursday, the ACLU of Northern California, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Samuelson Clinic at UC Berkeley ask that Google commit itself to protecting Book Search information from disclosure, limiting the retention of server log information to 30 days, allowing users to delete their data, and being transparent about how Book Search data is used.

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

On its Web site, the EFF has set up a link to an e-mail form so that concerned readers can send a message to Google's CEO and demand the same degree of privacy enjoyed when reading a newspaper.

Perhaps out of worry that Google might be confused with a telecom company that would turn its customer data over to the government to curry favor with regulators, Dan Clancy, engineering director for Google Books, on Thursday responded in a blog post with the assurance that Google really does care about privacy.

But Clancy also said that Google couldn't commit to the specifics sought by privacy proponents because the services that will be become part of the company's Book Search service haven't yet been designed.

That should happen once there's court approval for the settlement of a lawsuit brought by authors and publishers over the book scanning Google conducted to create its Book Search index.

"While we know that our eventual product will build in privacy protections -- like always giving users clear information about privacy, and choices about what if any data they share when they use our services -- we don't yet know exactly how this all will work," said Clancy. "We do know that whatever we ultimately build will protect readers' privacy rights, upholding the standards set long ago by booksellers and by the libraries whose collections are being opened to the public through this settlement."

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