Google Books is Privacy Battle's New Frontier

 @ibtimes on August 31 2009 4:58 PM

The battle over privacy protections online is moving to a new arena: The next major phase in the history Google's Book Search service.

While the service has been online for several years and already boasts millions of scanned books from libraries around the world, Google is seeking permission from a federal judge to finalize a lawsuit settlement it reached last year with authors and publishers which negotiated royalties and ensured copyright protections. If that is settled, the company would be allowed to build an online bookstore and expand its web library.

However advocates for some authors are raising concerns that Google privacy policies to protect readers are not strong enough.

While Google has been asked to create a book-specific set of policies which are stricter than the company's general privacy policy, the search giant has so far refused. Drafting a detailed privacy policy would be very difficult, if not impossible without a finalized settlement or without any services being built yet, wrote Dan Clancy, the Google Books Engineering Director in the company's public policy blog in July.

Advocates aren't convinced, saying that privacy concerns should be set in place ahead of the settlement.

They have this argument that they haven't built the product yet, well that's fine. Your policy on disclosure doesn't turn on the product, says Cindy Cohen, chief attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit online rights group.

Google's Stance

Google has so far pointed advocates to the company's existing general privacy policy for all the company's services as well as to general answers posted online about privacy in the book search service.

Clancy noted the company had heard there were questions about the agreement and knows it's important to users, adding that the privacy policy for the current book service is strong.

While the company will build in protections to the new services we don't yet know exactly how this all will work, he wrote.

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.

No specific commitment

A statement like that is a refusal to commit to the details, one advocate says.

There's no binding statement or specifics about what they'll actually do, says Nicole Ozer, a policy director for technology and civil liberties at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

In a recent online update about the advocacy groups' talks with the company, Cohen said safeguards against disclosure of user information are a central point of concern for the EFF and ACLU.

The groups want to Google to promise it will only turn over users' reading records when presented with properly-issued warrants from law enforcement and court orders from third parties not just subpoenas from lawyers which have not been approved by a judge.

Making a case

The groups say previous cases involving offline bookstores have shown that the owners of those establishments can put up tough resistance against requests. Advocates want Google to promise it will also fight for those protections for users in its future online bookstore.

Cohen says agreeing to this would be the easiest thing for them to do now ahead of the settlement finalization.

If Google doesn't, Cohen says EFF will file an objection to the settlement so the court can decide if its demands should be considered as part of the settlement. The deadline is on September 4.

Other demands include limiting tracking of users, with a promise to retain logging information for any of its services for no more than 30 days as well as giving users complete control over their information while making sure to disclose requests for user information from government or third parties.

She believes it's up to Google to set a tough example for an unprecedented future library and bookstore.

The users are probably not going to be in a position to know or to stand up for their rights, she says. The only way we'll get privacy is if Google commits that it will fight for it.

More information from Google:

Google's FAQ on Books Settlement and Privacy

More information from EFF:

The Big Disagreement about Google Book Search

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