Google Bows to FTC, Creates Privacy Policy for Google Books

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2009-09-04

Google Bows to FTC, Creates Privacy Policy for Google Books

Where privacy advocates failed to achieve, the Federal Trade Commission succeeded. Google Sept. 3 bowed to public pressure from the FTC, creating a formal privacy policy for its Google Books service before its Google Book Search settlement with authors and publishers is even approved.

Google Book Search is the search engine giant's mammoth undertaking to scan millions of the world's books online and offer them to users for fees. To do this, Google last October paid $125 million to settle a five-year-old, class-action lawsuit with the Author's Guild and the Association of American Publishers.

While Amazon, Microsoft, Yahoo and other organizations are opposing the deal because they fear the power it will afford Google over the world's books, privacy advocates lamented the lack of a policy that protects readers from any undue data collection. Google had been loath to institute a formal policy until the deal was approved and it could officially begin building the infrastructure for the service. That changed, apparently after the FTC and Google began talking.

"It is important for Google to develop a new privacy policy for 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," wrote David Vladeck, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a letter to Google dated Sept. 2.

In particular, Vladeck asked Google to limit secondary uses of data, such as using a list of books read in order to decide which advertising to show a Google Books user. Google took the FTC's requests to heart and announced a formal policy, which can be found here.

"To provide all users with a clear understanding of our practices, and in response to helpful comments about needing to be clearer about the Books product from the FTC and others, we wanted to highlight key provisions of the main Google Privacy Policy in the context of the Google Books service, as well as to describe privacy practices specific to the Google Books service," wrote Jane Horvath, Google global privacy counsel.

FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz acknowledged Google's gesture in a statement: "The Google Books initiative could provide a wealth of benefits for consumers, yet it also raises serious privacy challenges because of the vast amount of user information that could be collected. Privacy is a top priority of the FTC, and I am pleased that Google has listened to FTC staff's concerns and agreed to take initial steps, as outlined in the letters, to protect the privacy of Google Books users."

Authors Guild Fires Back at Amazon

However, Horvath left the door open to changes to the privacy policy, noting that it's not possible to draft a final privacy policy that covers all of the anticipated services and features until the deal is approved and Google Book Search is built.

Meanwhile, Denny Chin, the judge weighing whether to approve the Google Book Search settlement for a U.S. District Court in New York, has extended the deadline for parties to support or oppose the deal from Sept. 4 to Sept. 8 because of computer maintenance in the court. Chin is expected to hold a hearing on whether to approve the deal Oct. 7.

Google has about as many supporters as detractors for Google Book Search. Yesterday, several civil rights groups held a press conference to talk about how important the deal is for bridging the "digital divide." Noting that physical and financial barriers to knowledge continue to inhibit learning among disadvantaged communities and those of color, Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said:

"Google Book Search will help eliminate those barriers, making it possible for low-income students and students in poor quality public schools to access texts that can only be found on the far side of town or the far side of the world. With Book Search, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection will have a key to all of the world's great libraries."

Amazon, which has a competing book scanning service and filed a 49-page complaint to the court blasting Google Book Search, fears Google will have too much control over the market for orphan works, or those whose books that are out of print and whose copyright holders cannot be found. Google has dismissed opposition from rival Amazon as "sour grapes," but the Authors Guild Sept. 3 went a step further:

Amazon's hypocrisy is breathtaking. It dominates online bookselling and the fledgling e-book industry. At this moment it's trying to cement its control of the e-book industry by routinely selling e-books at a loss. It won't do that forever, of course. Eventually, when enough readers are locked in to its Kindle, everyone in the industry expects Amazon to squeeze publishers and authors. The results could be devastating for the economics of authorship.

Amazon, the organization said, will be free to continue its lock on the online distribution of in-print books.  

Read more about this issue here on TechMeme.

Rocket Fuel