Tuesday, February 23, 2010

EPIC Urges Court to Block Google Book Deal

Before I get to the latest on the Electronic Privacy Information Center's (EPIC) court filings urging a judge to block the deal struck with Google books months ago, let's refresh all of our minds on what the privacy principle is that we're fighting over here (with Google of course).

The ACLU does a good job framing the issue in their Google Book search campaign: 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 last year: 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.

It wasn't more than a few months ago that the Electronic Frontier Foundation (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.

That leads me to today's post, and what appears to be, but not a shock to anyone that follows the "privacy issue", Google's failure to adequately address advocates concerns.

Doug Hanchard of ZDNet writes:

As the negotiations continued throughout 2009 to the present day, EPIC has consistently voiced serious concerns on how the agreement has ignored several key issues concerning privacy of potential users of the service. Today’s press release is no exception.

In federal district court in New York, EPIC President Marc Rotenberg urged Judge Denny Chin to reject the revised settlement now before the court in Authors Guild v. Google. Mr. Rotenberg said that the settlement would “turn upside down” well established safeguards for reader privacy, including state privacy laws, library confidentiality obligations, and the development of techniques that minimize privacy intrusions. Mr. Rotenberg warned that the settlement would eviscerate legal safeguards for library patrons, commercialize access to information, consolidate Google’s control of the Internet, and put in place an elaborate system of user authentication and watermarking. “A person at any library or any university in the United States that attempted to retrieve information from Google’s digital library would be uniquely tagged and tracked. There is simply no precedent for the creation of such power.”


EPIC’s arguments warrant serious consideration by the court. Copyright issues can be fairly negotiated between Google and authors. EPIC believes that component is but a small part of the overall program that Google Books unleashes. At stake is the monitoring of our reading habits, what information sources we use, what’s popular and even how often we read. This data translates into information that has commercial value and has potential to influence in what we read and have in our collection of books. This may lead to future consequences that surprise us. A hypothetical example is what we read becomes analyzed and (eventually) be revenue generating by making specific items available - at a surcharge. These surcharges will be aimed specifically at you and you alone. Google will have information that reviews what your specific reading taste are, and if you want more books related to Google analyzed reading habits, Google potentially has the ability to strategically market and sell books and services that cater and maximize potential future purchases you make.

I'll just go back to my initial post on this subject about a year ago:

...it is essential that Google Book Search incorporate strong privacy protections. Without such protections, we're talking about a virtual one-stop shop for government and third party "fishing expeditions into the personal details of our lives." Again, these concerns are not hypothetical.

Just three years ago the U.S. attorney subpoenaed Amazon for the used book purchase records of over 24,000 customers in the course of a grand jury probe investigating a single individual. The good news was a federal judge agreed that Amazon should not have to turn over this information about its customers, saying that if word spread over the Internet that the federal government was probing book purchase information , “the chilling effect on e-commerce would frost keyboards across America."

If there ever was a time to make sure that Google doesn't put an end to reader privacy as we know it would be now. At present, all Google has done is make a lot of informal statements about privacy, while failing to provide an actual privacy policy with specific promises to consumers.

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