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Privacy and the Google settlement (long, sorry)

I've been struggling for months now with the question of whether 
or not the privacy issue is a complete red herring.  I've decided 
that I don't think it is, but I do think it's kind of pinkish. 
For what it's worth, here's why:

It seems to me that the library world is trying to get Google to 
act like a library, which it is not -- instead, what it will be 
(if and when the settlement is approved) is a unique sort of 
online library/bookstore hybrid. And it seems to me that the 
arrangement Google proposes, even without any explicit privacy 
assurances, gives users the benefits of both worlds as far as 
privacy is concerned.  If you use GBS in its library-like form 
(searching and accessing free books and book fragments on the 
open Web), your privacy isn't under any greater threat than it 
would be when using any other free Web resource -- your personal 
information won't be any more exposed than it would be when you 
access a free Newsweek article or a celebrity gossip page. (Not 
that I . . .  -- never mind.)

What about government snooping, though?  Google may not find out 
your home address or Social Security number when you use its free 
services, but it does find out your IP address and could 
conceivably tell the government what books were looked at from 
that address.  But again, this is true of any entity that runs a 
webpage.  Why single Google out?  True, as librarians we're 
particularly concerned about what happens when people read 
library books, and Google is moving aggressively into the 
access-to-library-books business -- but an awful lot of library 
patrons read Salon and Slate and the New York Times online, and I 
don't see any EFF petitions naming those publications.  Correct 
me if I'm wrong (seriously), but as far as I can tell none of 
those three outlets offers readers of its free content any 
privacy protection at all.  Where's the outrage?  Why don't we 
try to make them act like libraries?

The only time you're going to actually give Google information 
about yourself is if you enter into a business relationship with 
Google by purchasing content through the registry.  At that 
point, you make a choice: how much privacy are you giving up by 
entering into that relationship, and is that loss worth the 
benefit?  How much you give up will depend on what the terms are 
like at the time that the service becomes available.  My guess is 
that when the time comes, Google will offer as much privacy 
protection to its paying customers as the marketplace forces it 
to (just as Amazon does with its own rather vague and ambivalent 
privacy policy).  And I think we ought to let people decide for 
themselves how much their privacy is worth to them.  We all give 
up a certain amount of privacy every day in return for certain 
benefits.  Personally, I couldn't care less who knows knows what 
books I'm reading, but that's just me; others may care more, for 
a variety of good and bad reasons, and all of us should get to 
choose how private we keep our reading habits.  If Google makes 
no promises to keep users' reading behavior secret, then users 
who care should get their books elsewhere.  That may sound glib, 
but I do think it's important to bear in mind that Google is 
proposing only to *increase* the public's access to books. 
Nothing in the proposal will take anything away from anyone. 
Millions of people will have hugely greater access to books; some 
will have somewhat greater access; no one will end up with less 
than they have today.

I can't help but wonder if that isn't actually what bothers so 
many of us in the library profession about this whole initiative. 
Is it possible that we're raising pink-herring alarms about 
Google because we see Google taking over our traditional role as 
information brokers, and we can't bring ourselves to admit that 
that's the real problem?

I'm throwing all this out for what it's worth and simply as food 
for thought.  My mind is still open on all these issues and I'm 
open to correction -- though I may argue with it.

Rick Anderson
Assoc. Dir. For Scholarly Resources & Collections
Marriott Library
Univ. of Utah