Google Book Search Settlement and Reader Privacy: Questions & Answers

Over a year ago, I highlighted some of the privacy concerns related to the growing reliance on Google Book Search for our information-seeking needs. Recently, as the possible approval of the Google Book Search Settlement Agreement looms, various advocacy groups have again brought attention to the fact that Google might gain even greater ability to monitor the books you browse, the pages you read, and even the highlights and marginal notes you make on digital copies of books.

Notably, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU have called on consumers to pressure Google to build significant privacy protections into its Book Search service, demanding Google provide protection against disclosure of the books one reads, engage in limited tracking of user activities, provide users control over the data Google collects, and ensure transparency and enforceability of all privacy-related policies and procedures. The Center for Democracy & Technology followed with their own analysis and set of recommendations.

In response (and actually before CDT was able to get their document out the door), Google posted a quick FAQ regarding privacy and Book Search. Google insists that the services provided under the Settlement will be bound by its general Privacy Policy, that it will only share aggregate usage data with the Book Rights Registry, that Google Accounts will not be required to access the services (although there will be some access limits for those who don’t login). Google also defends the absence of privacy provisions in the Settlement Agreement because that was a document stemming from a legal dispute over copyright.

While Google has tried to appease the critics, it seems there are still many unanswered questions regarding ensuring reader privacy if the settlement gets approved, both in principle and practice. I’ll be working through these issues as I prepare a talk for the “Google Books Settlement and the Future of Information Access” conference organized by the UC-Berkeley Information School, and I welcome any suggestions or insights readers might have.

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