EFF seeking authors concerned about reading privacy

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is recruiting authors for a class action intervention in the Google Book Settlement, because the titles offered by Google under the agreement have no protections for the privacy of readers. This is a pressing concern, one the consequences of which were demonstrated by the recent Amazon Orwell debacle, which I discussed here. A book is or, rather, can be used to police the limits of citizens’ thought by linking reading of words with endorsement of the ideas those words represent. Here’s the nut of the EFF challenge:

The agreement has no protections in it for reader privacy or anonymity. None. Neither the Author’s Guild, the publishers nor Google has taken any steps in the context of this landmark agreement for the future of books, to ensure that the fundamental right of readers to privacy and anonymity of their reading habits are preserved. Our goal is to remedy that by asking Google and the others to enter into an enforceable agreement to implement those protections, or if that attempt fails, to ask the court to disapprove the settlement until it has sufficient protections for authors and their readers.

For years, the FBI and other national police forces in other nations have attempted to, and have, collected reading records from bookstores and libraries when seeking nonconformist and radical citizens. What we read becomes a brand of shame used by the police and government, as well as institutions like the church, to justify punishment. If Google’s book search and display technology creates a record of one’s personal reading, it can be subpoenaed. That represents a grave new threat to personal privacy and freedom of thought, for if we cannot explore ideas without becoming wed to them by police judgments of our reading, we can no longer safely explore controversies and decide for ourselves.

If you are a rights holder, consider joining the action.

UPDATE: Inside Google Books blog responded to the EFF call with a privacy-related posting. The Google privacy policy is inadequate in a variety of ways, because it allows Google to build very deep personal portfolios on which it builds ad-placement profiles for individuals. The posting is correct that a library terminal user would not be exposing any data, if they did not log into their own Google Books account, but the fact remains the service will constantly encourage logins in order to provide personalized services and access to one’s own library of books. The company’s data can also be subpoenaed by governments and, in some cases, Google has business agreements in place with governments limiting what information it may display and, conversely, it must be assumed, what information it must share with the government.

PW to host Google Settlement webinar

I’ll be listening in when Publishers Weekly‘s Jim Milliot, AAP board members Richard Sarnoff (Bertelsmann) and John Sargeant (MacMillan), and the Authors Guild talk turkey about the Google Books Settlement on July 29 at 2 PM Eastern time. The conference call will be held online, you can sign up here.

Feds digging into Google Books settlement

GbookslogoThe U.S. Department of Justice will investigate the Google/Authors Guild/Association of American Publishers book settlement to determine if it violates federal antitrust laws. I suspect that the result will be a compromise that allows future negotiations of royalties by rights holders (authors and publishers) with Google. The current agreement, which rights holders must decide to conform with, or opt out of, by Septmeber 15, 2009, locks in all participating authors to a 63 percent share of revenue generated by Google.

The BBC provides quotes from Google’s response:

“The Department of Justice and several state attorneys general have contacted us to learn more about the impact of the settlement, and we are happy to answer their questions,” Google said in a statement.

“It is important to note that this agreement is non-exclusive and if approved by the court stands to expand access to millions of books in the US.”

The settlement applies only to books published before the agreement was announced on January 5, 2009 and stems from Google’s scanning of hundreds of thousands of books without the rights holders explicit permission.

The preemptive royalty agreement, I believe, will be the focus on the federal interdiction, since it has the primary material impact on rights holders after the close of the opt-out window. The scanning will go forward under a different agreement.

Locking participants into terms of business is similar to the behavior of a cartel, which is why that will become the fulcrum of any change demanded by the DOJ.

Here is the Google-sponsored FAQ on the agreement.

Authors Guild starts full-court press for Google agreement

Roy Blout Jr., president of the Authors Guild, has published a plea for support of the Google Books agreement he helped negotiate, arguing that the deal is being held up over fears about a “‘Monopoly’ of Orphans.” He argues that Google’s monopoly on scanned out-of-print books would be only over those books for which the rightsholder cannot be found, and points to the success of the Authors Registry, a non-profit the manages overseas photocopying rights, in finding 80 percent of rightsholders they seek. He signs it, in his signature Blountian way: “Unmonopolistically yours.”

I have problems with the settlement, because it sets a standard in revenue sharing for all books that will eventually be scanned and sold through Google Books that may shave away more of the tiny sliver of revenue currently going to authors when applied to copyrighted works. The math always works against an author, so this agreement should be combined with a move by the Authors Guild to separate e-book and online rights from paper publishing rights systematically, so that authors receive a higher share of online revenue because publishers have substantially lowered cost and risks when taking an author’s work to digital formats.

Financial Times: Google’s railroading cartel

The Financial Times‘ Lex column (registration at site required, but free) makes the rhetorical point:

Imagine that in the 19th century the company furthest advanced laying US railroads was given the right to build all future rail lines. The public might have gained from the new services, but ultimately been left at the whim of a powerful monopoly. Now take the deal between Google and the publishing industry to create a digital market for out-of-print books – some 40 per cent of all those ever published. However laudable such a goal that may be, it raises anticompetitive issues too.

The article lays out clearly and simply why the Google Books deal with libraries is flawed. Rather than creating and exception to existing copyright and intellectual property restrictions, the outcome of the legal confrontation should be a general and open system for any company that wishes to scan books under terms acceptable to authors or other rights holders.

The deal is based on a scenario that is too good to be true. Google is only here to help, the company says, yet is it sweeping up rights that could be abused. Readers face a potential future where, because it is impractical to compete with Google, other e-book providers simply don’t try, giving Google free reign to raise prices on access to books, whether one at a time or through an all-you-can-read subscription service. It could choke off libraries’ access to these books, because Google circumvents their relationship with the reader or raises institutional prices too high.

For free culture activists, it should be clear that the settlement in effect grants Google a degree of control over access to library collections it has scanned that is functionally similar to holding a renewed and extended copyright on the works.

It is also questionable whether the potential for advertising in library-accessed books is a good idea, since it commercializes what had been a public good and, potentially, creates a commercial filter based on advertisers preferences for certain ideas and information. If faced with reading an uncontroversial history of, say, the Iraq War, which is free at the library through Google Books and one that, because it has no ad revenue support carries a fee, the least-privileged in society would probably opt for the free choice. That’s a kind of commercial Big Brotherism we need to engineer out of e-libraries.

The takeaway: Google is being granted a cartel position in the intellectual marketplace, which the FT believes is bad for competition. “Google’s ingenuity does not give it the right to surround itself with an impregnable digital moat,” the column concludes.