Could Google Book Search Be an All-Powerful, Privacy-Killing Monopoly?

By Eliza Strickland | May 5, 2009 10:22 am

old booksObjections are increasing to Google Book Search, Google’s massive effort to scan millions of books and present their contents online. The company reached an agreement last year with the Authors Guild and Association of American Publishers to pursue the project. It is awaiting a judge’s approval…. The settlement is unusual is that it essentially structures the digitized book search market while that market is in its infancy, said Bert Foer, president of the American Antitrust Institute [Reuters]. But Google is facing new obstacles in winning that judicial approval, as concerns continue to mount over how much power will be concentrated in the company’s hands.

The settlement would establish a revenue-sharing system and would allow Google to present the partial contents of books in the public domain, books that that are still under copyright but are out of print, and current books whose publishers have negotiated agreements with Google. But critics worry that Google is building a new kind of monopoly based on access to information, and that the company could therefore set prices as high as it wanted. In a new legal filing by library groups, critics of the settlement wrote that “the cost of creating such a library and Google’s significant lead-time advantage suggest that no other entity will create a competing digital library for the foreseeable future” [CNET]. The Justice Department’s antitrust division is also reportedly investigating the deal.

In the new filing, three organizations representing 139,000 libraries asked the court to exercise “vigorous oversight” over the settlement. As of November, Google had scanned about 8 million books through a partnership with libraries. In exchange, Google has promised to give each library a single free terminal for patrons to read the books, but not print or copy any of the works. For broader access, libraries would have to pay an institutional subscription fee that has not yet been determined [Los Angeles Times]. In their new filing, the library groups asked the judge to ensure that subscription fees would not be artificially high because of lack of competition.

The library groups also raised questions regarding the privacy of users who use Google Book Search. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online civil liberties group, has said that it too plans to ask the court to ensure that Google does not monitor the reading habits of users of its Book Search service…. Unlike the libraries, which are merely asking for court oversight, [EFF legal director Cindy] Cohn said that the E.F.F. was working with a group of authors that plan to oppose the settlement unless adequate privacy guarantees are put in place [The New York Times].

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Image: flickr / Lin Pernille

  • Chris

    the Fiction Circus have been reporting on this for a while now:

    including a recent (audio) interview with law professor James Grimmelmann who is responsible for NY Law School’s amicus breif:

  • patrick

    Are they gonna tell us what’s relevant too?

  • Nick

    Except that it’s DIGITAL, and you can COPY it EASY without DESTROYING the ORIGINAL.

    You know, potentially like Project Gutenberg. What I want to know, though, is why libraries are participating by scanning copies of books without keeping a copy. I mean, just stick them on tape drive or something.

    But, honestly, I applaud Google for trying to stop the slaughter of trees by digitizing works (or in the case of out-of-print books, for bringing otherwise unreachable books to the masses.)

    This is a great thing, unless you have money vested in controlling the access of information. Remember, Goog originally wanted to give everyone free access to the entire contents of these books (because knowledge is power), and were fought down in court. (because money is still more powerful than knowledge to people that have more money than knowledge… which, unfortunately in America is almost everyone, even those bankrupt and in massive debt)

    We’re all worried so much about what Google is looking at of our web surfing habits. Then we go on Facebook, give them our REAL information, and broadcast our every move to the world. No one (that uses) Facebook is all that concerned about this, or they wouldn’t be using Facebook in the first place.

    In fact, a lot of (criminals/runaways/etc) get caught because they post on Facebook, giving away their location (oh, yeah, Facebook encodes the location you make every update from). No, I’m not making that up, go read their TOS and policies. They handle 20-30 requests a day from law enforcement.

    But remember, nothing to be afraid of if you haven’t done anything wrong!

    Anyways, sorry EFF but the surveillance society was put in place by society and not the government or corporations while you weren’t looking, but by our own desire to utilize technology. Even twitter, who doesn’t care who you really are, allows you to put in your real name and you can have your phone update your profile with a current GPS location when you tweet.

  • John Burton

    Making books (info) available to the masses is the greatest thing that could possibly be. Imagine a mind of great genius some place in the world, too poor to buy books or attend a university, can sit in the privacy of his home and let the knowledge of the world into his brain. Who knows what the results might be? Maybe people with religious violence notions will see the evil of suicide bombers and other evil things encouraged out of ignorance and superstition. Sooner or later this will come about and the sooner the better. Maybe fewer people would be exploited in the name of religion and pursue more purposeful goals in life. All information should be made available, free, to everyone except information that might be harmful to humanity such as toxins, nuclear bombs and hate info. But now that would be censorship.

  • paula

    I think goggle ought to be laude for what it is doing. The only protest, if it ever comes, will be from vested interests who (still) feel that these books are only a way to earn money. Maybe by digitizing these books, Google will create a renewed interest in them.

  • Mats H

    I’m surprised Google is proposing a library fee. It’s not the Google I appreciate — simple, free, discreet. Except that, the only threat I can see here is directed towards copyright-holding dinosaurs. I wont miss them when they gone.

  • Sumur

    Finding old books that easy in Google is the best thing I found lately on the net. I dreamed since long ago to have Raffles’s History of Java without ever having resource to realize it. Suddenly they’re there, free for the picking. As an academic I don’t care much for selling-rights (if you want to be rich, go somewhere else!) , information wants to be free.
    Oh, yes, Google could use a couple of quality control guys to ensure that those (behind the) scanners do everything right.


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