Google Lets Privacy Imperil Book Deal - InformationWeek
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9/8/2009
08:04 PM
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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Google Lets Privacy Imperil Book Deal

Google's ongoing inability to anticipate the privacy concerns surrounding its services is baffling. The company should know better by now, given its ongoing struggles with Street View and search privacy.

Google's ongoing inability to anticipate the privacy concerns surrounding its services is baffling. The company should know better by now, given its ongoing struggles with Street View and search privacy.Yet only a few days before the closure of the comment period for the Google Books settlement did the company decide that actually publishing its Books Privacy Policy might prove useful.

If Google really took privacy "very seriously," as it has claimed to, it would have enlisted privacy groups in its product design process from the outset and fought proactively rather than reactively. But perhaps the company just didn't expect to be blitzed by competitors determined to deny Google a new market.

As thing stand, the Book settlement now faces significant opposition on privacy grounds. On Tuesday, a group made up of more than two dozen authors and publishers, represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Samuelson Law, Technology, and Public Policy Clinic at the UC Berkeley School of Law filed a motion opposing the settlement because of perceived privacy problems.

Add the privacy issues to the objections made on antitrust and copyright grounds and Google may find itself scrambling to save the deal with further concessions or without a deal at all.

The unfortunate aspect of this whole debate is that it should have been had years ago at a much higher level, that of ISPs and governments. It should have been about making privacy possible online rather than detailing the circumstances under which the massive amount of tracking data that we generate for service providers can be revealed.

The debate now is more like hammering out the details of a surveillance disclosure policy.

Meanwhile, the concrete privacy harms that Google and other search companies have enabled -- like the unknown number of jobs never offered due to search results that reflect poorly on job seekers -- get overlooked so we can focus on guarding against fringe abuses.

Sure, it's worthwhile for the EFF to worry about what Google will do when the government wants to know what you've been reading online. But if the government really wants to know, it will find far more information by getting a warrant to seize your computer, or the books on your shelves for that matter, than by serving Google with a subpoena.

Ultimately, I hope the Google Books deal goes through. Google gambled when it scanned million of copyrighted books and if those representing the aggrieved authors and publishers think $125 million and a Book Registry is a fair penalty for systematic copyright violation, let the case be settled and let Google benefit from the boldness of its vision.

However, I would add these caveats however: The settlement price that Google pays should be available to other groups that want to buy their way out of copyright liability. And Google should be required to make its book scan data available under a compulsory license -- at a cost determined the settlement judge to compensate Google for its investment in scanning -- to other players who want to enter the market.

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