Thursday, October 8, 2009

Letter to Google: Take Time to Add Privacy Protections into Google Book Search

With the approaching launch of Google Books just around the corner, and a court settlement regarding Google Book Search still in negotiations, there's a whole lot of attention being given this issue by privacy advocates. The ACLU, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Samuelson Clinic even launched a Google Book Search privacy campaign - just one component of the ACLU-NC's dotrights project.

As EFF noted on their website yesterday: The Court considering the Google Book Search case granted the parties more time to renegotiate the settlement. The Court had received approximately 435 submissions about the settlement by both class members and amici. The American Library Association did a helpful analysis that estimates that 390 of the submissions object to the settlement and another 8 submissions support the settlement but with significant reservations. Shortly thereafter, the Department of Justice weighed in with serious reservations as well, leading the plaintiffs to seek the extension. The Court will still meet with the parties for a status conference on October 7.

So what is "Google Book Search" and why are privacy advocates so concerned?

The ACLU does a good job framing the issue: What you choose to read says a lot about who you are, what you value, and what you believe. That’s why you should be able to learn about anything from politics to health without worrying that someone is looking over your shoulder. The good news is that millions of books will be available for browsing and reading online. The bad news is that Google is leaving reader privacy behind. Under its current design, Google Book Search can monitor the books you browse, the pages you read, and even the notes you take in the "margins." Without strong privacy protections, all of your browsing and reading history could be collected, analyzed, and turned over to the government or third parties without your knowledge or consent.

As I wrote a month back, we're not talking about just another library mind you - librarians utilize a different standards for dealing with user information than does the online world. Many libraries routinely delete borrower information, and organizations such as the American Library Association have fought hard to preserve the privacy of their patrons in the face of laws such as the U.S. Patriot Act.

The concerns of privacy advocates are not hypothetical - nor should they be discarded as paranoia. Our country has a long history of government efforts to compel libraries and booksellers to turn over customer records and information.

Why would anyone believe, particularly after the warrantless wiretapping scandal, that the government won't ask a company like Google to turn over the treasure trove of private personal information it has on millions of Americans? For these reasons and more, it is essential that Google Book Search incorporate strong privacy protections.

That leads me to today's post. Yesterday, EFF along with the ACLU and the privacy authors and publishers they represent, which include the American Library Association, the Association of Research Libraries and the Association of College and Research Libraries, CDT, EPIC, SFLC, Professor James Grimmelman sent a joint letter to Google urging it to include privacy protections along with its reconsidered Google Book Search Settlement.

A key passage from the letter reads:

As you know, the failure of the settlement to ensure that readers using the Google Book Search services will have their privacy protected as much as readers using physical books has been a key concern for many authors, libraries and the reading public. It is the basis for some objections to the settlement, but has also been raised as a concern by those who support the settlement.

As author Jonathan Lethem put it, “now is the moment to make sure that Google Book Search is as private as the world of physical books. If future readers know that they are leaving a digital trail for others to follow, they may shy away from important but eccentric intellectual journeys.”

While we appreciate the statements made in the privacy policy released in early September, that policy does not go far enough. We believe that it is vital that Google commit to additional privacy protections and that such commitments be enforceable by the court presiding over the settlement.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Democracy & Technology, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center in their respective briefs have offered recommendations, many of which are quite similar, and would be happy to assist you in navigating any real or perceived differences between them. As the plaintiffs’ motion correctly notes, “depending on the contours of the amended settlement agreement, some objectors may no longer object and would choose not to travel to New York at all for the hearing.”

Providing real, enforceable privacy protections may help reduce the number of objections that the court must consider as the case moves forward.

Click here to read the letter.

Seems like a reasonable and mutually beneficial request to Google: Take your time to implement the privacy suggestions made by the organizations and experts that are the most committed and knowledgeable on this issue.

No comments: