Tuesday, November 24, 2009

More on the Privacy Implications of the Revised Settlement with Google Books

Last week I wrote about the initial reactions among privacy advocates to the recent revised court settlement with Google Book Search (an effort to dramatically expand its current service). The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the ACLU, and the Samuelson Clinic (from the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology) have been battling the privacy allergic Google for months now on this issue, with little headway to be had.

I've written about this service in the past (from earliest to most recent), here, here and here.

Today, let me just go right to a comprehensive analysis of the settlement by EFF that adds much needed detail to my post of last week. In "Google Books Settlement 2.0: Evaluating Privacy" EFF's Fred von Lohmann writes:

We have now examined the chief promised benefit (increased public access) of the proposed Google Books settlement, as well as one of the chief potential drawbacks (impaired competition). Another down-side to the proposed settlement is its lack of adequate protections for reader privacy. And although EFF has repeatedly written about the privacy problem and outlined specific steps that could be taken to address it, as have the ACLU, CDT, EPIC, library associations, and academic authors, the revised Settlement 2.0 still does nothing new to address the serious privacy concerns raised by the Google Book Search services.


The products and services envisioned by the proposed settlement will give Google not only an unprecedented abililty to track our reading habits, but to do so at an unprecedented level of granularity. Because the books will be accessed on Google's servers, Google will not only know what books readers search for and access, but will also know which pages they read, how long they stayed on each page, what book they read before, and which books they access next. This is a level of reader surveillance that no library or bookstore has ever had.


And it's not just Google that might want records about your reading habits. A core concern EFF has with the proposed settlement is that under it Google need not insist on a warrant before turning over this sensitive reader information to governmental authorities or private third parties. This is hardly a hypothetical risk: between 2001 and 2005, libraries were contacted by law enforcement seeking information on patrons at least 200 times. And in 2006 alone, AOL received almost 1,000 requests each month for information in civil and criminal cases.

This lack of protections for reader privacy stands in sharp contrast to the privacy protections that librarians and bookstores have been fighting for in connection with physical books for decades. Nearly every state has laws protecting the privacy of library patrons. Yet when Google scans books it got from libraries, privacy protections could be left behind at the digital threshold if Google doesn't stand up for them.


Google has announced a privacy policy for Google Books. While it addresses some of the privacy concerns EFF and others had raised, it does not go nearly far enough. As we've previously explained, the privacy policy can be changed at any time, is not an enforceable obligation tied to the proposed settlement agreement...For all of these reasons, in its present form and without further affirmative steps by Google either in the context of the settlement or outside it, the proposed Settlement 2.0 makes Google Books a threat to reader privacy, which in turn is a serious a down-side that must be weighed against the settlement's potential benefits.

If you are yet to be convinced that such a service does indeed pose privacy risks - unprecedented in some respects - than I highly suggest you check out the rest of EFF's article. In it you'll find a laundry list of specifics in which Google has intentionally fought privacy protections, and for the time being beat them back, as determined by the current settlement.

The question we should continue to ask when dealing with Google's ongoing aversion to privacy protections for its customers is why? I would venture to guess that the answer to that question will be found in the same way so many related ones are answered: follow the money.

1 comment:

Media Mentions said...

If you're interested, here's some more info on the topic: http://www.pressdisplay.com/pressdisplay/showlink.aspx?bookmarkid=URRVP3SU6ME5&preview=article&linkid=f9138323-0ffa-4322-ae50-b11bd483bdb3&pdaffid=ZVFwBG5jk4Kvl9OaBJc5%2bg%3d%3d