Googlebooks Settlement and Privacy

POSTED BY Rick Shera
27 May 2010

posted in | Intellectual Property | Copyright | International | Digital Publishing



Two posts in as many weeks on the Googlebooks settlement.

No, I am not fixated … well, maybe just a little.  But, I think that's understandable because, for me, this settlement ticks all my professional "interest" boxes.

  • At 300+ pages, it is a hugely complex legal labyrinth requiring real attention to detail and concentrated thought in order to unwind it's meaning (yes, I realise that is not everyone's cup of tea but, as the name of this blog suggests, I'm an ICT lawgeek)
  • The sheer awesomeness of the Google vision - to scan and make available tens of millions of books (although not necessarily all to us here in New Zealand since we have stricter copyright laws than in the US).
  • As I posted last week, the copyright issues it raises go to the heart of what copyright was, is and what we might hope it will be in an online environment.
  • The international ramifications of a US class action settlement effectively being used to supersede international treaties and jurisdictional boundaries.
  • The arcane and mysterious relationships between libraries, publishers, authors, collecting societies and purportedly representative bodies - all with their own baggage, but forced by Google's fair-use gameplan, to play ball with each other.  The settlement is not even the sum total of those machinations - there are numerous side agreements between the various parties only some of which are publicly available.

And - to get to the purpose of this post - the massive privacy implications.  I've been musing for years on the concept of online identity, privacy, anonymity etc.  This is not the place to regale you with that.  I'll be speaking on it at the New Zealand Computer Society's 50th Anniversary Conference in September this year -

But, I've just read a very insightful article by Cindy Cohn (legal director) and Kathryn Hashimoto (intern) of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) on this, entitled, "The Case for Book Privacy Parity: Google Books and the Shift from Offline to Online Reading".

I thought I had a fairly good handle on some of the privacy aspects of the settlement but I was surprised to find there is nothing in the revised settlement document at all about privacy protection, despite many submitters on the first draft settlement document raising privacy as a concern.  Although Google has its own reasonably comprehensive privacy policies, they do not go far enough in EFF's view when it comes to books.  But, the important point in any case is that because the privacy terms are not in the settlement, Google can change them whenever it likes and it would be difficult to obtain any sanction for breach. Facebook anyone?

The killer piece that shocked me though and which moved me to write this post can't really be paraphrased, so I'll quote it and you can make up your own mind:

"The Google Books services will do a large amount of tracking of readers. It will collect and store the following information as a reader searches and browses:

  • terms the reader uses to search for books;
  • titles and descriptions of books the reader searches for but never reads;
  • titles and descriptions of books the reader finds and browses;
  • pages the reader reviewed and the time spent on each page;
  • titles of books for which access is purchased.

All of that information will be tied to a variety of other information collected while the reader is signed in to a Google account.

Even more significantly, Google Books’ granular tracking of readers will continue long after purchase. In fact, for as long as a purchaser continues to have access to the book, Google Books will continue to track which specific pages are read and reread, even how long is spent on each page read, plus any annotations made by the reader. As EFF observed at the fairness hearing, no library or bookstore could gather as much information about readers as Google Books will, short of hiring someone to follow readers through the stacks and then into their homes."

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