Authors tell Google to suck it

February 23, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

In what amounts to a strong rebuke to Internet behemoth Google’s proposed plan to digitize the world, the Guardian is today reporting that court documents show some 6,500 authors, from Thomas Pynchon to Philip Pullman, have opted out of the controversial Google Book Search settlement. The deal is an amended version of a similar agreement reached in October 2008. That version of the settlement was widely contested by international bodies, and prompted an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice as to whether it violated American antitrust laws. The new agreement, which was meant to address the most contentious issues, was to be ruled on in a fairness hearing last Thursday. However, U.S. District Judge Denny Chin declined to make a ruling, saying that there was “just too much to digest.”

From The Associated Press:

In court papers submitted last week, Google Inc., which is based in Mountain View, Calif., defended its deal with authors by saying its digital library lives up to the purpose of copyright law, which is to create and distribute expressive works.

“No one seriously disputes that approval of the settlement will open the virtual doors to the greatest library in history, without costing authors a dime they now receive or are likely to receive if the settlement is not approved,” Google said.

The Department of Justice said Google and the plaintiffs have made substantial improvements to the original settlement, but it said “substantial issues remain.”

One of those “substantial issues” appears to be the fate of so-called “orphan works,” that is, out-of-copyright works for which no rightsholder can be found. American Libraries quotes Judge Chin as specifying orphan works as one of the key issues in the settlement: “’I would surmise that Google wants the orphan books and this is what it is about – orphan books that will remain unclaimed,’ Judge Chin conjectured.”

Regardless, the number of authors who have decided to opt out of the agreement whether or not it gets judicial approval is going to be a tough hurdle for Google to surmount. One of the authors who opted out, Ursula K. Le Guin, famously resigned from the Authors Guild because of their support for the deal. In an open letter to the Guild last December, Le Guin wrote:

I am not going to rehearse any arguments pro and anti the “Google settlement.” You decided to deal with the devil, as it were, and have presented your arguments for doing so. I wish I could accept them. I can’t. There are principles involved, above all the whole concept of copyright; and these you have seen fit to abandon to a corporation, on their terms, without a struggle.

In addition to copyright and antitrust concerns, critics have also suggested that the deal raises serious privacy issues.

While confessing aggravation over the way this entire procedure is dragging itself out, yr. humble correspondent must express sympathy with the authors and others concerned about the implications of the settlement for copyright, and nervousness about the prospect of vesting so much in one set of corporate hands. Google’s proselytizers claim that the Borgesian digital library the company is proposing, which would feature ready access to everything ever written (as someone who was once in charge of a publisher’s slush pile, I can only shudder with horror at that prospect), would be an unqualified boon to humanity. My own view is that in addition to taking significant control out of the hands of content creators, the settlement also represents a dangerous step along the road to media and corporate consolidation. Call me crazy, but I don’t particularly want one single gatekeeper in charge of allowing access to the world’s accumulated knowledge. Particularly if that gatekeeper is a publicly traded company.

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.