The American Library Associations have filed their amicus brief to the Google Books Settlement approval procedure. They call for strong judicial oversight, stronger guarantees against possible abuse of market power, and more emphasis on intellectual freedom and privacy protection.
I have been following the settlement proceedings, mostly through James Grimmelmann’s efforts, and was looking forward to the libraries’ position on privacy and intellectual freedom. I have to admit that I am a little disappointed.
On privacy, the brief concludes:
In response to concerns raised by libraries and others, Google has stated that it will take appropriate measures to protect user privacy. The Library Associations expect Google, in consultation with the Library Associations and other representatives of user interests, to meet this commitment. Google and the Registry should develop strong policies to protect personally identifiable information, and provide users with clear notice describing those policies.
In other words the brief does not call for limitations on the registration of individual reading habits or the further use of such information. And the problem that the brief does not address is the lack of protection against government access under US law. Without legislative action, the reading records that would be collected by Google are accessible with a simple subpoena. Google and the Registry can settle what they want, and the court can approve what it wants, they cannot offer additional protection under US law against access by law enforcement and national security agencies.
On intellectual freedom, a library term for freedom of expression and information, the brief discusses Google’s discretion to exclude books for editorial and non-editorial reasons. A recent debate over library censorship shows how real these concerns are in the United States. The brief notes:
While Google on its own might not choose to exclude books, it probably will find itself under pressure from state and local governments or interest groups to censor books that discuss topics such as alternative lifestyles or evolution. After all, the Library Project will allow minors to access up to 20% of the text of millions of books from the computers in their bedrooms and to read the full text of these books from the public access terminals in their libraries. Although public libraries have often contended with demands to eliminate or restrict access to specific books, any collection management decision by a particular librarian affected only that community.
What the brief fails to notice, is that the books in the Google Books Program are already available somewhere in a United States library. One would expect this to mean that the material is legal and suitable for American readers, from a librarian’s perspective at least. Why would libraries agree to an extra round of editorial discretion with regard to material that has been carefully selected already?
The remedy proposed in the brief is accountability through transparency. The Court, overseeing the settlement, should be able to direct Google to provide a list of excluded books with a motivation for these exclusions. This will probably be enough for Google to think twice about excluding books for bad reasons, but I would have expected libraries to take a stronger stand on (private) censorship and simply oppose the removal of books from Google Books because they would be unsuitable for children.