More Pressure Brought On Google To Protect Readers' Privacy

Google Books Search

The digital rights group Center for Democracy & Technology has joined the roster of advocates calling for Google to build more privacy protections into its book program.

"At a minimum, before the settlement is approved, Google should issue a set of privacy commitments that explains both its general approach to protecting reader privacy and its process for addressing privacy in greater detail," the CDT said in a 14-page report issued Monday.

The report comes just days after the civil liberties organization Electronic Frontier Foundation and other groups also publicly urged Google to commit to protecting the privacy of book readers as part of its settlement of a lawsuit by authors and publishers. The settlement agreement calls for Google to fund a new book rights registry and also allows it to digitize books and sell downloads at prices set 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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Like other advocates, the Center for Democracy & Technology says it's concerned because the settlement agreement does not specifically call for Google to protect the anonymity of people who read digital books. The organization says that Google should follow the same standards as libraries and refuse to turn over information about readers to law enforcement authorities unless they first obtain a search warrant.

The Center for Democracy & Technology is proposing that the settlement should be approved, but that Google should commit to keeping users' identities confidential. "It is important to keep in mind that neither party to this case was negotiating on behalf of the reading public," the group says in its report. "It is critical for the court to protect the longstanding tradition of reader privacy even as GBS [Google Book Search] brings sweeping change to the way we find and read books."

Andrew McDiarmid, a policy analyst with the digital rights group, says the organization wants to ensure that people won't be afraid to read books digitized by Google. "We're interested in seeing that readers aren't chilled from using the service," McDiarmid says. "When you go to the library, you're confident that what you check out and what you read are anonymous. We want to make sure that traditional right is preserved as books move online."

Google said last week that concerns about its book search feature's privacy policies are premature.

Some other observers, including the Institute for Information Law & Policy at New York Law School, have raised concerns about different aspects of the proposed settlement, including whether it 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, and the European Union recently said it would review the settlement at a hearing in September.

James Grimmelmann, a New York Law School professor who has raised concerns about the deal, says the agreement itself seemed neutral on privacy. "I don't think the settlement locks us into a good or bad place with privacy. It's all in how the programs are implemented," he says. "On one hand, Google has a point when it says, 'You can't judge privacy when we haven't launched yet.' On the other hand, they could be doing more now to convince everybody that the privacy [policy] of the product they eventually launch will be as good as it should be."

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