Communications and Media

Privacy Concern over Google Books

Google, the widely used search engine has a mission: "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."1 However, from taking pictures of people's homes and property to Google Books, the ways that Google has gone about fulfilling that mission have been criticized by many.

Google Books

Google Books allows access over 7 million books online. Researching subjects is much easier. You can search for a specific term that appears in the text, rather than the traditional method of using the index. As long as you have the Internet, you've got access to a variety of information and sources larger than most college and public libraries.

The Lawsuit

After launching Google Books, the Authors Guild, the Association of American Publishers and a handful of authors and publishers sued Google in a class action lawsuit claiming copyright violations. Google settled with the parties three years later. On its Web site Google said that they "will be working closely with these industry partners to bring even more of the world's books online. Together we'll accomplish far more than any of us could have individually, to the enduring benefit of authors, publishers, researchers and readers alike."2 The settlement gave Google the broad rights to scan books and pay authors and publishers for that right.

Opposition to the Settlement

After, many authors and publishers objected to the settlement agreement. Google, the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers may now have to reconsider their settlement.

Authors and publishers fear that letting Google scan their books would lead to an uncontrolled digitalization of their works. They fear that scanning these books will jeopardize the future of printing and see this as the book's demise.

The publishing industry argues that this is comparable with what happened to the music industry recently. When people began using unauthorized file sharing to listen to music royalties and profits were damaged. Even the Justice Department claims that Google Books gives Google too much of a role in determining the digital fate of a large number of books.

The main fear is that Google would have too much power in influencing how information is distributed. Also, civil liberties rights groups have their own problems with the agreement since it didn't address privacy concerns.

Google Books and Privacy Concerns

The American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and UC Berkeley's Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic voiced their worries as Google expands the number of books available through its service.

When you search for a book on Google Books, the Web site keeps track of the books visited. The company also has a repository of data about its user's reading habits. This could become a "one-stop shop for government and civil litigant fishing expeditions into the private life of Americans,"3 civil rights groups wrote in a letter to Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

Right now, Google seems to have made little effort to say how they intend to protect reader privacy. Given the long and troubling history of government and third party efforts to compel libraries and booksellers to turn over records about readers, it's essential that Google Books incorporate strong privacy protections.

Nicole Ozer, a director with the ACLU of Northern California, explained that this is like "someone following you down the aisle at the library, writing down every book you pick up and every book you sit down to read."4

Keeping track and then disclosing what people read, even when courts request this information, is a hot issue. There have been many legal battles over this issue between book sellers and libraries on one hand, and the government and civil litigants on the other. Right now, Google is at the midst of this tension. Because users can buy some of the digital books, Google would have even more access to information than typical libraries do, including your name, address, banking information and more.

Raising Legal Concerns?

Privacy is a right guaranteed by the Constitution. The scope of privacy is broad. It covers personal information, such as medical information, financial and credit history, employment records and personal records. There is a growing conflict with the government's right to information and your right to privacy.

In part, this is due to the growth of the internet and communication technology, such as e-mail monitoring and electronic background checks. To address these issues, several laws were passed. HIPAA establishes standards for the protection of certain health information. And the Fair Credit Reporting Act ensures privacy in consumer reports. However, these existing laws may not be enough.

Google Books pushes the envelope of privacy law. For instance, imagine the situation where you suspect you may have a disease. You can go into a bookstore, find a book about the illness, and buy it with cash. You can feel certain that your insurance company won't get this information, and your insurance premiums won't increase because there's no way to find out about your choice of reading material.

However, when this information becomes digitized, you lose control over who may access this information. For instance, in 2006, Amazon, a Web site that also has digitized books, was requested to turn over book purchase records of 24,000 customers by a US Attorney. What happens if Google is asked to do the same?

What Can Google Do?

To address this concern, the civil liberties groups asked that Google do the following:

  • Respond only to properly issued search warrants and court orders. Users should be alerted if their information is sought
  • Retain user book search data for no longer than 30 days, make cookies anonymous after 18 months and IP addresses anonymous after nine months. Google also shouldn't tie any book information it collects to behavior on the company's other services without consent
  • Create a clear privacy policy for books and publish annual data about the requests it receives for book information

Google's Response

Google responded in a blog post that it'll ensure a strong privacy policy, but it hasn't been implemented yet. "While we know that our eventual product will build in privacy protections - like always giving users clear information about privacy, and choices about what if any data they share when they use our services - we don't yet know exactly how this all will work,"5 Dan Clancy, engineering director for Google Books, wrote in the blog post.

In the meanwhile, users should be aware that their information and browsing history is not protected and may be accessed by others.

The Future

In attempting to launch Google Books, Google has encountered many obstacles. It already made a number of concessions that will provide privacy protections to users. It allowed access to digitized works by competitors like Amazon, and is accommodating differences between European and American copyright laws. However, with their settlement agreement being questioned, Google may need to do even more. Some opponents even argue that the settlement agreement between Google, the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers, must be rejected and destroyed since it will allow Google Books to go forward with digitalizing books.


1Google, Corporate Information, Company Overview,, accessed Oct. 7, 2009.
2Google Books, Settlement Agreement,, accessed Oct. 7, 2009.
3Verne Kopytoff ,Google Books under attack over privacy, SFGate, July 23, 2009, , accessed Oct. 7, 2009.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • What is the extent of my right to privacy while using the Internet?
  • Is there a greater degree of privacy if you access online books and research resources through a public library account or Web site, such as browsing an online card catalog, or checking out digital books? Are the privacy rights the same as using the physical library, combing through the stacks and checking out materials?
  • Has the law kept up with technology in the areas of privacy and copyright? What if I've written copyrighted works? How do I protect my works online?
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