Court Asked To Impose Privacy Terms In Google Books Settlement

Google will gain unparalleled access to people's reading habits if a controversial settlement of a lawsuit with authors and publishers goes through, Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Cindy Cohn said this morning at a hearing in federal district court in New York.

U.S. District Court Judge Denny Chin, tasked with deciding whether to approve the settlement, asked Cohn how Google's record-keeping ability would differ from Amazon's, given that the retail giant also retains data about which books people purchase and bases recommendations on that information.

Cohn replied that Google has far more granular data than Amazon because Google retains the ability to track how people interact with books after they're purchased. "Google will know every page you read," she said. Amazon, by contrast, only knows that someone made a purchase, but doesn't know what happens after books leave its warehouse.

Cohn said the authors she represents would like to see legally enforceable privacy terms incorporated into the settlements. Specifically, she said, the settlement should provide that Google won't give law enforcement authorities any information relating to people's reading activity without a warrant. Secondly, she would like to see Google agree to destroy logs about readers' histories within 30 days.

Cohn wasn't the only person to raise privacy issues this morning. John Morris, an attorney with the Center for Democracy & Technology, also urged the court to insist on privacy terms in the deal. "Privacy was not on the negotiating table and thus is not part of the settlement," he said.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, also criticized the deal. But unlike Cohn and Morris, he said he believed the privacy hurdles were insurmountable.

Hadrian Katz, representing the Internet Archive, chimed in that Google's recent launch of Buzz showed that the company doesn't always make the right call when it comes to privacy.

The deal, if approved, would resolve a copyright infringement lawsuit filed against Google in 2005 by the Authors Guild and the American Association of Publishers. The groups argued that Google's scanning of books and display of snippets violated copyright. Google claimed that it had a fair use defense.

The settlement, announced in 2008, would allow Google to digitize and sell books, including "orphan works" whose owners can't be located. That provision has proven especially controversial, because it would allow Google -- but no one else -- to publish such books without facing copyright infringement lawsuits.

Lawyers for Microsoft, Amazon and other companies raised that issue again this morning, arguing that the agreement gives Google an unfair advantage in digital book publishing.

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