Google Book Search: Protecting Privacy as the Library Moves Online

Google's online library: A great service that could sacrifice reader privacy.

ByABC News
August 26, 2009, 4:00 PM

Aug. 27, 2009— -- 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.