Group Worries That Google Books Could Violate Readers' Privacy

privacyThe digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation is raising concerns about whether Google's upcoming digital book service will adequately protect readers' privacy.

"As Google expands its Google Book Search service, adding millions of titles, it will dramatically increase the public's access to books," the civil liberties organization says. "But Google may be leaving out the privacy we have come to expect, with systems that monitor the digital books you search, the pages you read, how long you spend on various pages, and even what you write down in the margins."

Google recently forged a controversial agreement with authors and publishers to settle a lawsuit stemming from its book search program. The pact calls for Google to fund a new book rights registry and allows the company to digitize books and sell downloads at prices it sets with the registry. U.S. District Court Judge Denny Chin in New York has given outside parties until Sept. 4 to object to the settlement.

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Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says the group might file objections to the Google Book Search settlement on behalf of authors who fear that people won't read their books without assurances of anonymity.

She says the group is seeking a commitment from Google that it won't release information about users to the government unless the authorities first obtain valid warrants.

"People have a fundamental right to reading privacy," Cohn says. "We need to make sure that Google doesn't become a one-stop shop for governmental fishing expeditions."

Cohn says the group also is seeking promises from Google to limit the time it retains information about readers. She says that informal talks with search company were unproductive.

Google says that worries about the book search program's privacy policies are premature. "Our 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," the company says in a blog post. "That means it's very difficult (if not impossible) to draft a detailed privacy policy."

But Cohn counters that the settlement agreement is extremely detailed in other respects.

For now, the organization is calling on Web users to contact Google CEO Eric Schmidt and demand that the company build privacy protections into the book search service.

Several other critics, including the Institute for Information Law & Policy at New York Law School, have raised concerns about different aspects of the proposed settlement, including whether the deal will give Google an unfair advantage over other potential digital book publishers. The Department of Justice also is investigating whether the deal raises antitrust issues. The European Union also recently said it would review the settlement at a hearing in September.

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