August 28, 2009, 8:45 PM — If Google digitizes the world's books, how will it keep track of what you read?
That's one of the unanswered questions that librarians and privacy experts are grappling with as Google attempts to settle a long-running lawsuit by publishers and copyright holders and move ahead with its effort to digitize millions of books, known as the Google Books Library Project.
For librarians, many of whom are working with Google to digitize their collections of books, it's a thorny question. That's because librarians and the online world have different standards for dealing with user information. Many libraries routinely delete borrower information, and organizations such as the American Library Association have fought hard to preserve the privacy of their patrons in the face of laws such as the U.S. Patriot Act.
But now, as more and more titles become available in Google Book Search, it's not clear whether digital readers will enjoy the same privacy protections they have at the library. "Which way are we going to go?" said Michael Zimmer, a professor from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. "Is this service going to be an extension of the library, or an extension of Web searching?"
Zimmer spoke at a panel discussion at the University of California, Berkeley, on Friday. He was one of several panelists who called on Google to make a stronger privacy commitment as it develops the Google Books service.
Google has taken extra steps to preserve privacy with other offerings. It has blurred faces on Google Maps Street View and kept records for Google Health users that are separate from other Google services.
With its mobile location-based service, called Google Latitude, Google doesn't keep a log of user locations. "One wonders if this could be applied in some sense to Books," said Jason Schultz, acting director of the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic.
Google posted a "frequently asked questions" document about Google Books and privacy late last month, but the company plans to release a more formal privacy statement in the coming weeks, according to Google Books engineering director Dan Clancy.
Google often says that privacy is important, but it needs to talk more about what steps it will take, said Chris Hoofnagle, director of the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology's information privacy programs. "The details are what really matter," Hoofnagle said.
"Privacy, by design, requires early intervention," he added.