Google Books and Reader Privacy


(Cross-posted from

Universal online access to search the full text of all the world’s books — it’s a vision that speaks to the heart of libraries’ mission to connect people with ideas. The Google Books Library Project has a noble goal — “to work with publishers and libraries to create a comprehensive, searchable, virtual card catalog of all books in all languages that helps users discover new books and publishers discover new readers.”

What could go wrong?

Plenty, as it turns out.

Google was sued by a group of publishers and authors to address copyright and other intellectual property issues, and the resulting proposed legal agreement — the Google Books Settlement — outlines the terms under which Google will be able to provide access to the 7 million books it has already scanned, and the millions more it will make available in the future. For more information on the settlement, including wonderful summaries that help simplify this very complex document, see the GBS page created by ALA’s Washington Office.

One of the most significant issues with the Google Books project is reader privacy, which is not addressed in the settlement. In a library, readers can browse anonymously and the privacy of library records is protected by state confidentiality laws, library policies, and the shared ethical framework of librarians. How will Google protect reader privacy?

In response to concerns from the library community, privacy activists, and others, Google has released a privacy policy specific to its Google Books service, which addresses many of the issues that have been raised. It’s a great start, but does it go far enough in ensuring that readers’ First Amendment rights aren’t chilled by the potential for monitoring and surveillance?

The Google Books Settlement impacts the rights of publishers, booksellers, libraries, authors, Google itself, and — most significantly, yet perhaps least considered — the rights of consumers and readers of digital books. Libraries and privacy advocates will continue to follow this situation and to fight for the privacy rights of all readers.