Privacy Police vs. Google Books

The ACLU and other organizations are turning up the heat on Google to protect readers' privacy. The groups are concerned that Google's plan to significantly expand Google Books does not come with a policy to keep users' reading habits safe from prying eyes.

Google in October reached a settlement of a lawsuit alleging its book scanning plans violated copyrights. The agreement still has to be approved by a federal court and the Justice Department is looking into anti-trust questions. Google touts the settlement as paving the way for a massive release of of books online.

The ACLU worries that the monitoring of readers' online browsing and buying activities will expand along with the number of titles. The Google service is able to track the books readers search and the pages they read.

Together, the ACLU of Northern California, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at U.C. Berkeley's law school last week sent a letter to Google's chief executive Eric Schmidt. The letter urged him to take several steps, among them:

**Ensure that Google will not provide information to unauthorized parties.
**Inform readers when anyone demands information about them.
**Allow anonymous browsing and searching.
**Permit readers to manage information about themselves, including reviewing and deleting records.
**Inform readers about what information is collected and maintained about them.

"What you choose to read says a lot about who you are, what you value, and what you believe," wrote the ACLU's Chris Conley on the group's Blog of Rights. "You should be able to read about politics, health, or anything else without worrying that someone is looking over your shoulder."

Google responded to privacy questions last week in a statement posted by Dan Clancy, Google Books engineering director. "Privacy is important to us, and we know it's important to our users, too," he wrote. "We have a strong privacy policy in place now for Google Books and for all Google products."

He added that since the settlement hasn't been approved by the court, Google hasn't yet designed the service it will implement under the rules of the agreement. "That means it's very difficult (if not impossible) to draft a detailed policy," he continued. He assured users that privacy protections will be part of the product, though he admitted, "We don't yet know exactly how this all will work."

The company said it is in discussion with privacy advocates about how best to protect the privacy of people searching, browsing and buying books online. "We do know that whatever we ultimately build will protect readers' privacy rights, upholding the standards set long ago by booksellers and by the libraries whose collections are being opened to the public through this settlement," Clancy said.

Given the passion the issue inspires -- and the dollars at stake -- the discussion could get noisy.

By Steven E. Levingston |  July 29, 2009; 5:30 AM ET
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