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Net watchdog inserts self in Googlebooks pact

What good is a privacy policy?

Warning that Google's $125m digital library settlement with American authors and publishers provides exactly zero privacy protection for the world's readers, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has filed a motion in federal court to intervene in the hotly-debated Google Book Search case.

In October, Google settled a longstanding lawsuit from the US Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers over its library-scanning digital books projects, and though the 134-page deal takes great pains to provide legal protection for Google as it rolls out what could be The Last Library, it doesn't provide protection for those on the other end of the service.

"The critical problem that EPIC has identified is that if you read through the settlement terms, the question of how to protect the privacy of the new service is not addressed at all," Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Washington, DC-based net watchdog, said this morning during a conference call with reporters. "There is simply nothing in the settlement that would safeguard the privacy interests of users of the Google Book service."

And so EPIC has filed its motion with the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, where Judge Denny Chin is scheduled to hold a fairness hearing on the settlement in early July. "This settlement involves right holders on the one side and Google on the other, and neither represent reader privacy interests," said EPIC staff counsel John Verdi. "We have asked the court to grant EPIC leave to participate in this matter in order to safeguard and protect reader privacy interests."

Yesterday, under pressure from the US Federal Trade Commission, Google agreed to draw up a (partial) privacy policy for Book Search. But Rotenberg is calling for some real protection. "We do not think privacy policies are a good way to protect privacy," he said. "They typically announce plans that the company plans to pursue with little real restriction on collection or use of personal data. When Google says it will have a privacy policy, that doesn't mean there will be privacy protection."

What's more, Google can change its policy at any time. And of course, whatever Google intends to do to protect privacy goes out the window if the company is served with a subpoena or warrant. "Under those circumstances, the company may be compelled to provide information that it might wish not to provide," Rotenberg said. "One of the things we would hope would come out of this settlement is some limitations on the collection and use of personal data. So that when Google faces those warrants and subpoenas it wouldn't be put in the position of providing sensitive user information that given its choice it might not make available."

The settlement still requires court approval, but Judge Chin does not have much power to change the settlement. Basically, the judge can accept or reject, and the onus is on the parties involved to make any changes - to proceed to trial. If EPIC is allowed to intervene, the organization would be empowered to actively explain how it believes user privacy should be protected under the settlement.

But privacy is only part of the issue. For many, the concern is also that the settlement gives Google an undue amount of control over the future of the digital book market. Among other things, the settlement would grant Google an exclusive license to scan, sell, and post ads against so-called orphan works, books whose rights holders cannot be found. The US Department of Justice is investigating the matter. ®

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