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Google urged to self-police ebookworm tracking

No more concrete foundation mold snooping

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

US net watchdog The Center for Democracy and Technology has warned the world that Google's $125m book-scanning pact with US authors and publishers will give the web giant an "unparalleled view of people’s reading and information-seeking habits," urging the company to explain how it plans to protect user privacy if the settlement receives court approval.

Unlike some, the CDT sees no problem with federal judge Denny Chin approving the pact, which would give Google a kind of legal monopoly in the digital book business. But the watchdog has asked the court to monitor Google's commitments to privacy on its expanded digital book service - if and when Google explains what those commitments are.

In October, Google settled a suit from the US Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers over its Google Book Search project, which seeks to digitize works inside various libraries across the globe. The settlement creates a "Book Rights Registry" where authors and publishers can resolve copyright claims in exchange for a cut of Google's revenues from the project. But it also gives Google a unique license to scan and sell and post ads against so-called "orphan works," titles whose rights are controlled by authors and publishers who can't be identified or located.

But the deal is under investigation by the US Department of Justice. The deal's antitrust implications, however, are of little interest to the CDT. "We do think it offers a good amount of benefit for the public in terms of expanding access to these works, and in general, it could be good," the CDT's Andrew McDiarmid tells The Reg.

The watchdog is merely worried that the pact will compromise readers' traditional rights to privacy. "Providing such breadth of electronic access to so many published books will give Google an unparalleled view of people’s reading and information seeking habits," says the CDT report (available here).

"By hosting the scans and closely managing user access, Google will have the capability to collect data about individual users’ searches, preview pages visited, books purchased, and perhaps even time spent reading particular pages."

As the report points out, the settlement touches on data collection only briefly. But rather than pushing for a change in the settlement, the CDT has called on Google to voluntarily disclose its data policies. "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 as Google Book Search moves forward," the report continues.

Last week, Google did blog in typically general terms about reader privacy on Google Book Search (GBS). But the CDT wants more. It has called on Google to "clearly and prominently" disclose the following:

  • What information Google collects in connection with GBS, including information that can be used to identify individual readers (IP addresses, cookie information, and account information, for example)
  • What information Google collects about individuals’ use of GBS (search terms, book selections, page selections, or length of stay on a particular page, for example)
  • The purpose for which this information is collected
  • How long each type of data is retained
  • What technical mechanisms Google uses to track readers on the GBS site
  • How readers can exercise choice about having their data collected and used in connection with GBS
  • How reader data is safeguarded against theft or misappropriation

And naturally, the CDT wants Google to agree that it will only collect and use the data it needs to maintain the digital book services laid out in the settlement. For instance, the watchdog says that Google has no need to collect the details on specific pages a reader views or how long they view them.

It would appear that Google Book Search engineers are at least tracking such things for the fun of it. Google engineering director Dan Clancy told the International Herald Tribune that while monitoring Google Book Search queries, he happened to notice that one user had spent four hours reading 350 pages of a tome dedicated to concrete fountain molds.

We would argue that getting Google to change its privacy ways takes much more than a PDF from the CDT. But the watchdog is merely urging the court to get involved after Google volunteers its own ground rules.

"We think it's appropriate for the court as a representative of the public interest to recognize the importance of reader privacy and hold Google to its word with whatever statement it makes on privacy," McDiarmid says.

Google says it will update its privacy post as its "product plans evolve." In other words, more generalities are on the way. ®

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