Legal advocates push for Google Books privacy

The ACLU, EFF, and UC Berkeley Law Clinic ask Google to protect reader privacy with its Book Search project.


Google should promise to protect the privacy of consumers with its Book Search service, the ACLU, Electronic Frontier Foundation and Samuelson Law Technology & Public Policy Clinic at UC Berkeley Law said in a letter to the search giant on Thursday.

"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 groups wrote in a letter (PDF) to Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt.

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

In 2006, the U.S. Attorney demanded that Amazon turn over book purchase records of 24,000 customers, the groups said in an e-mail statement.

Specifically, the groups are calling for Google to promise to respond only to properly issued warrants from law enforcement and court orders and notify readers if information about them has been requested; allow readers to search and browse anonymously; give readers control over their purchases and data and prevent others from viewing their activities; allow readers to give books to others without tracking; tell readers what information is being collected and maintained and why data has been disclosed if it has.

Google also should keep search log information for no longer than 30 days and agree not to share reader activity with third parties or link data collected about use of Book Search to any other Google services without user consent, the groups said.

A Google Books representative said it's premature for Google to say what its privacy policy will be, but that Google will continue to discuss the issues with advocates.

"We have a strong privacy policy in place now for Google Books and for all Google products. 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," Dan Clancy, engineering director for Google Books, wrote in a blog post on Thursday.

"That means it's very difficult (if not impossible) to draft a detailed privacy policy," he wrote. "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. 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."

Google has negotiated deals with publishers for current works and is also digitizing public-domain works. For out-of-print books still protected by copyright, the company reached a $125 million proposed settlement with U.S. publishers and authors that awaits court approval.

Critics complain that the deal, which is scheduled to be implemented in October, would effectively give Google a monopoly over books that are in copyright but out of print. Google argues that the agreement will make millions of books hidden on library shelves more accessible and give publishers and authors a new opportunity to profit from them.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Justice said it was launching a formal investigation into the proposed settlement. And European Union regulators are also taking a close look.

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