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Feds force Googlebooks privacy promise

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Under pressure from the US Federal Trade Commission, Google has released a privacy policy specifically for Google Book Search, that digital library service poised on the brink of monopoly.

Late Thursday afternoon, after an earlier conversion with the Mountain View web giant, the FTC posted an open letter urging Google to create a privacy policy just for Book Search, which could potentially track the book reading habits of who knows how many web users. Previously, the company said the service was covered by its general policy.

"We have concerns about Google gaining access to vast amounts of consumer data regarding the books consumers search for, purchase, and read," the FTC's letter said. "It is important for Google to develop a new privacy policy, specific to Google Books, that will apply to the current product, set forth commitments for future related services and features, and preserve commitments made in the existing privacy policy."

Notice the "future related services" bit. In October, Google settled a lawsuit from US Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers over Book Search, which involves scanning texts inside many of the world's leading research libraries. The $125m settlement would give Google the right to scan, sell, and serve ads against millions of copyrighted books, while authorizing additional online services above and beyond the current incarnation of Book Search.

The settlement does not cover privacy, and though many have urged Google to lay down its privacy commitments for a post-settlement world, the company had previously refused to do so, arguing that the services described in the settlement haven't been built yet.

And yet, after discussions with the FTC, Google has not only laid down a privacy policy for today's Book Search, but made certain promises about post-settlement services. "We've planned in advance for the protections that will later be built, and we've described some of those in the Google Books policy," reads a blog post from the company.

Yes, it did say some. Google makes it clear this is not a complete privacy policy for future services. "Because the settlement agreement has not yet been approved by the court, and the services authorized by the agreement have not been built or even designed yet, it's not possible to draft a final privacy policy that covers details of the settlement's anticipated services and features. Our privacy policies are usually based on detailed review of a final product -- and on weeks, months or years of careful work engineering the product itself to protect privacy."

And as it stands, the policy doesn't say much more than Google has said in the past. Among other things, the policy states:

  • Google will not require users to create Google accounts, or in any way register their identity with Google, in order to [browse free online books covered under the settlement, use the settlement's institutional subscription services, or use public access terminal the settlement will set up in public libraries]
  • Users will need to have Google Accounts in order to purchase [post-settlement] books because such information is necessary to provide access to the user who bought the book. However, we plan to build protections to limit the information (such as book titles) available to credit card companies about book purchases, and to enable you to delete or disassociate the titles of books purchased from your Google Account.
  • When you use [the current] Google Books, we receive log information similar to what we receive in Web Search. This includes: the query term or page request (which may include specific pages within a book you are browsing), Internet Protocol address, browser type, browser language, the date and time of your request and one or more cookies that may uniquely identify your browser.

The policy does not prevent Google from mixing this data with data from other Google services. it steers clear of the fact that so many will log into their Google accounts while browsing whether they need to or not. And naturally, it doesn't address the (many) other issues surrounding the settlement, such as the monopoly it would create around so-called orphan works or the Book Rights Registry that would have sole control over the prices of Google's scanned works.

For the Internet Archive's Peter Brantley, who heads up the Open Book Alliance, a group that vehemently opposes Google's book settlement, today's Google announcement is easily summarized. "Google’s response essentially boils down to this – Trust Us. Given Google’s silence on specifics — from privacy, to pricing, to access, to competition – we think it’s too important to leave to blind faith that Google would do the right thing for consumers if the settlement is approved."

The Open Book Alliance is working to quash the settlement and put federal legislation in its place - federal legislation that covers all book scanners, not just Google. The settlement still requires court approval. A hearing is scheduled for earlier October. ®

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