ACLU, EFF Demand Reader Privacy Protection in Google Book Search

The American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Berkeley Law Public Policy Clinic call for Google to institute strong reader privacy protection in the design and policies of the Google Book Search project. The groups ask the search engine to erase reader logging data after 30 days, allow readers to erase their reading records and protect reader records from law enforcement officials.

Fearing that Google has not instituted adequate privacy measures to protect readers in its Google Book Search initiative, three consumer rights groups have asked Google to let users delete their book purchase records, erase reader logging data after 30 days, and only disclose reader records for legitimate warrants and court orders.

Google responded that the settlement has not even been approved by the court so the Google Book Search services haven't been built, let alone designed yet.

In a letter addressed to Google CEO Eric Schmidt (PDF) and dated July 23, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at Berkeley Law School charge that while Google has focused on how to expand its service for digitizing the world's books online, the search giant has not been clear about how it will protect its customers' privacy.

Google Book Search, which aims to scan millions of books online and make them accessible to consumers and libraries for fees, has been ramping up in the wake of the search engine giant's $125 million settlement with the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers.

With the Department of Justice formally scrutinizing this effort, the ACLU, EFF and Samuelson clinic are increasing the pressure on Google this week, noting:

"Under its current design, Google Book Search keeps track of what books readers search for and browse, what books they read, and even what they "write" down in the margins. Given the long and troubling history of government and third party efforts to compel libraries and booksellers to turn over records about readers, it is essential that Google Books incorporate strong privacy protections in both the architecture and policies of Google Book Search. Without these, Google Books could become a one-stop shop for government and civil litigant fishing expeditions into the private lives of Americans."

The biggest request the groups are asking of Google is that it let Google Book Search customers have complete control of their purchases and purchasing data.

Readers should be able to delete their records to prevent others from seeing their reading activities. Moreover, they argue that readers should be able to share books they pay for online with anyone without tracking and that Google should not reveal any information about Google book use to credit card processors.

The groups also want the search engine giant to make it clear to Google Book Search users what information is being collected and stored about them. They also ask Google not to keep logging information longer than 30 days, or link information it collects about Google Book Search readers to their usage of other Google services without consent.

The groups also ask that Google refrain from disclosing reader information unless requested through subpoenas and court orders.

In short, the groups are trying to protect users from the many ways information collected in the Google Book Search service could be exploited for marketing information and financial gain.

Dan Clancy, the engineering director for Google Books, responded to the letter July 23, arguing that because the services haven't been built yet, it's hard to draft a detailed privacy policy. Clancy wrote:

"We're thinking hard about how best to build privacy protections into the products authorized under the settlement. We've been having ongoing discussions with a wide range of privacy advocates, and we look forward to talking more with them and others throughout the industry about how to protect the privacy of people who search, browse, and buy books online."

Independent of the Department of Justice investigation, a U.S. District Court is examining the Google Books settlement and will hold a fairness hearing Oct. 7.

Even so, Hugh D'Andrade, a graphic designer for the EFF, asked the public in this blog post to e-mail or write Google's Schmidt demanding privacy.

Consumer Watchdog's John Simpson chimed in, and there is more on TechMeme here.