Big Brother is watching … and its name is Google

July 30, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

Yr. humble correspondent hasn’t written much anything to this point about the Google Book Search settlement because, well, I don’t care. This whole Internet thing is just a fad, after all, a mere flash in the pan, and as soon as it fizzles, we can all go back to life as we knew it in 1985. (Now, there’s a horrifying prospect.)

Anyway, for those of you who haven’t been following it, Google has plans to digitize a shitload millions of books, which they will then make available on their site. The upside of this plan is that huge numbers of out-of-print titles will be available to anyone who wants them. The downside is that many of these works remain under copyright, which has roused the ire of rightsholders who feel that Google is in effect stealing their work. Last October, Google reached a settlement in a class action lawsuit, paving the way for it to proceed with its ambitious plans to unleash its Borgesian library on the world. The settlement, which still needs judicial approval, includes an opt-out clause that allows rightsholders to deny Google access to their copyrighted works. There is a fairness hearing scheduled for October 7 to decide, in part, whether Google’s plan to allow exclusive access to so-called “orphan” works – books still under copyright, but for which no rightsholder can be found – violates U.S. antitrust laws.

All of this is a thorny thicket of legal issues, made all the more complicated by the fact that there is no precedent for this kind of massive digitization plan.

Up to now, the arguments about the Google settlement have largely centred around issues of copyright. But lately, another issue has sprung up: privacy concerns for users of Google Book Search. On The Washington Post‘s (or, WaPo, for those so inclined – I’m looking at you, Murray) Short Stack blog, Steven E. Levingston reported that the ACLU and other civil liberties organizations in the U.S. are “turning up the heat” on Google to get them to address privacy issues where their Book Search service is concerned.

On July 23, the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at Berkley Law School sent a joint letter to Eric Schmidt, Chairman and CEO of Google, expressing in strong language their concerns that the expanded Google Book Search may violate users’ privacy rights. The letter reads, in part:

Under its current design, Google Book Search keeps track of what books readers search for and browse, what books they read, and even what they “write” down in the margins. Given the long and troubling history of government and third party efforts to compel libraries and booksellers to turn over records about readers, it is essential that Google Books incorporate strong privacy protections in both the architecture and policies of Google Book Search. Without these, Google Books could become a one-stop shop for government and civil litigant fishing expeditions into the private lives of Americans.

This is not a minor concern. Given the Bush administration’s efforts to compel libraries to turn over borrowers’ records to the government in the wake of 9/11, the argument that “it can’t happen here” is pretty much dead in the water. The ACLU letter asks that Google include, at a minimum, four planks in its privacy policy for Google Book Search:

  • Protection against disclosure
  • Limited tracking
  • User control
  • User accountability

Under its current privacy policy, Google maintains server logs that “may include information such as your web request, Internet Protocol address, browser type, browser language, the date and time of your request and one or more cookies that may uniquely identify your browser.” The policy also states that Google places cookies on users’ computers “to improve the quality of our service, including for storing user preferences, improving search results and ad selection, and tracking user trends, such as how people search” (my emphasis). Extrapolating from the current policy, it’s not hard to imagine Google storing and maintaining vast lists of what its users have been reading – lists that could easily be used for profiling or other unsavoury purposes.

Google has responded to such concerns on their Public Policy Blog, saying,

[O]ur settlement agreement hasn’t yet been approved by the court, and the services authorized by the agreement haven’t been built or even designed yet. That means it’s very difficult (if not impossible) to draft a detailed privacy policy. 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.

Which, suffice it to say, is not entirely reassuring. While they stipulate that they are determined to “[uphold] the standards set long ago by booksellers” and libraries where privacy is concerned, it is still possible for a person to anonymously browse a bookstore or library’s collection, and to purchase a book with cash, thereby leaving no paper trail for some intrepid snoop to follow later on. Under the current umbrella policy that Google has in place, similar privacy online seems like a pipe dream at best.

Whatever the outcome of the judicial approval process, it is incumbent upon Google to ensure that its users are afforded the strictest privacy protections possible. If returning to 1985 is a horrifying prospect, creating a brand new 1984 would be even worse.


2 Responses to “Big Brother is watching … and its name is Google”
  1. August says:

    Any notion of online privacy has been a pipe dream for years. Most of what you italicized is collected about you every time you visit a website, whether you login or post a comment or do anything more than glance at the front page. That Site Meter widget at the side of your page does most of that (tracking user trends involves acquiring information about times of day users visit, what pages the server shows them, what browser and OS they use–excellent information for web designers to determine what technologies they can and cannot employ–what country they’re from, how long they stayed on the site, etc), and every time you visit a page with an ad, a Facebook widget, a user commenting system or similar technology, you’re served one or even several cookies that can track what you do and where you go and all sorts of things about you. The modern Internet would not, could not, function as reliably as it does without those things. Any notion that what you do or say or look at on the Internet being private as some kind of default state or practice went obsolete more than a decade ago. While Google’s privacy policy has had some sinister things in it in the past (and probably still does; it’s been a while since I went point by point through it, and I haven’t really the time right now), most of what you point out is what most sites do most of the time. My site does it, actually. It might interest you to know that my review of The Tracey Fragments is my most popular page this month, though reviews of Special Topics in Calamity Physics and Where is the Voice Coming From?, both from 2007, have remained in the top 10 every month since they’ve been posted. I also have a surprisingly large number of readers in India, and most of them visit 1.36 pages per visit. I also have a shockingly high number of visitors using Google’s own Chrome browser, and the bulk of them use Windows and connect to the Internet using DSL.

    Now, I don’t use the vast majority of this information. Mostly I just look at what sites a user comes from, how many there were, and what browser they use. But I could track a lot of really incredibly specific information if I was so inclined. (In my dorm at UW we once used IP addresses to find out which other person’s computer in the dorm room was infected with malware and was trying to attack our machines over the network, and that was in 1999.)

    I understand the concerns, but people need to understand one thing about the Internet, and the Web in particular. There is no such thing as privacy online, and you have to be willing to trade a chunk of it away if you want to live, work, and play on the Internet. If the matter is taken to court, Google can probably bring enough prior art to bear that will show that not only has Big Brother been watching since Matthew Broderick was playing War Games, but that it’s an accepted and perhaps even necessary industry practice. The privacy battle should have been fought in the mid-’90s, when people first realized that there was something to this Internet thing. I fear that now it’s a case of trying to get the urine out of the pool.

  2. Steven W. Beattie says:

    I was with you right up until the urine in the pool comment. That’s just nasty.