Google has been working on a monumental project to scan millions of library books and put them online. Many of those books are not yet readable, because of a copyright lawsuit filed by authors and publishers. That lawsuit has been tentatively settled, and if a judge approves the deal this fall, millions more books will be available to browse through and read.
It would be the world's greatest virtual library. But some authors have mixed emotions about its effect on the act of reading.
Novelist Jonathan Lethem says Google should be "congratulated" for its effort. Lethem adds, "This is the moment to take a look and say, 'Why isn't it as private as the world we're being asked to leave behind, the world of physical books?' "
Lethem wonders whether future readers will have the same kind of relationship with books that he had. "When I was on this very private, very eccentric, intense journey as a younger person, it was crucial that it be a solitary practice," he says. But if future readers have reason to think they're leaving a digital trail, he adds, it might deprive the reading experience of its intimacy.
Lethem is one of several authors — including Michael Chabon and Cory Doctorow — who have signed on to a campaign to pressure Google Books to offer greater privacy guarantees for its readers. The effort was organized by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
"They know which books you search for," says Cindy Cohn, legal director for the foundation. "They know which books you browse through; they know how long you spend on each page."
It's the same kind of information that's produced by someone surfing the Web. But Cohn believes books should enjoy greater privacy.
The EFF and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California want Google to keep reader data for less time than normal Web searches. Ideally, they say, the data should be deleted after a month.
There may also be technical limits to how much anonymity the company can offer readers. Google's tentative settlement of the copyright dispute allows for readers to have free browsing rights to only 20 percent of a book. If Google is going to keep track of how much of a book a person has seen, it has to keep track of a person's reading. And of course, when someone buys access to the full book, that will necessitate some form of identification.
Even here, Google says it's trying to find ways to offer anonymity to readers. Google plans to sell "full access" subscriptions to institutions — colleges or libraries — and it says it will not ask for the identity of the individual students or library patrons who use the service.
But privacy rights groups want more ironclad guarantees. EFF's Cohn says company privacy policies can change. She wants Google to make legally binding commitments to reader privacy; chief among them a pledge never to turn over readers' information unless presented with a warrant.
The EFF and the ACLU of Northern California want Google to attach these privacy guarantees to the copyright settlement, to make it part of a legally binding contract. The settlement is currently under court review, and the judge has given third parties until Sept. 4 to comment. The privacy groups are planning to file amicus briefs with the court asking for privacy guarantees, unless Google agrees to their demands.
Google's Keller says the settlement is not the place for privacy guarantees. "It would be weird to put it in the agreement. She says it's "not the kind of thing that would generally come up in the settlement of a copyright conflict."
Nevertheless, she says Google and the advocacy groups are "on the same page" on most privacy goals. However, she thinks these matters would be better handled after the settlement is approved, and once Google starts building the software for its expanded online library.
But Cohn of the EFF says this is the best time to settle these issues — before Google Books becomes a huge repository of personal reading habits. Better to make legal commitments to privacy now, she says, because it will minimize the public relations consequences of saying no to law enforcement, down the road.
"They can say, 'The ACLU and the EFF really pushed us to make these agreements, so it's not us; get mad at them,' " Cohn says. "That's fine — I'll take that heat!"