Imagine having online access to virtually any book, at anytime, including millions of books no longer in print.
Imagine being able to browse through this extraordinary collection of much of the world's knowledge, search for quotes and key passages, annotate pages with your own thoughts, and share the marked-up page with friends and colleagues.
Now imagine that this uber-library never closes; that it's always just one mouse-click away.
This isn't fiction, it is the ambitious vision of Google Book Search, an online service that stands to revolutionize the way people access and interact with books.
A copyright fight dragged Google's book-search product through the courts, resulting in a controversial settlement that expands the service to the benefit of both sides.
That settlement is now waiting for court approval in October. While the settlement is not perfect, given the extraordinary value that Google Book Search will provide to society, my organization, the Center for Democracy & Technology, is supporting approval of the settlement, as do most library organizations, albeit not without reservations.
One issue — reader privacy — remains unresolved as the date for the settlement hearing fast approaches. While the massive settlement agreement resolves a host of issues between the parties, it says little to nothing about how privacy will be protected as Google takes on the functions of a library.
Yet, offline, the right to read anonymously enjoys strong constitutional protection. For decades, libraries have protected the rights of readers to remain anonymous. Such anonymity is protected by the First Amendment and is a cornerstone of intellectual and political freedom. Almost all states have library confidentiality laws.
The question is whether and how Google will honor these protections as it designs and builds Google Book Search and develops policies to guide its use of customer data.
Under the proposed settlement, Google will be required to collect a substantial amount of information about the people who use Google Book Search. Google will need certain information to control how much content users access electronically (in most cases, users will have access to about 20 percent of a book's content before they must pay) and to track royalties due authors and publishers, among other things.
Even taken in a vacuum, the idea of a massive database of readers, cross-referenced by their reading preferences, choices and activities, raises serious privacy concerns. But those concerns are magnified when considered in the context of the sensitive personal information that Google already collects and controls.
Through its broad array of applications and services, Google has access to a great deal of user information.
Google's capacity to collect information, coupled with its often-confusing tangle of policies governing how that information is used, has troubled privacy advocates for years. While Google has taken important steps on the privacy front in the past year, the addition of the Google book data adds a complexity that cannot be ignored.