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Warning issued on Google Books privacy threat

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Thu, Jul 23, 2009 at 4:34 pm

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Much of the focus on the proposed Google Books settlement has been on antitrust concerns. But even if those are resolved before the deal is approved, there is another troublesome area: user privacy.

That’s why it’s so important that the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU of Northern California and the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at Berkeley Law School sent a letter today to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, demanding that Google take specific steps to protect users’ freedom to read privately. They wrote:

"We urge you to assure Americans that Google will maintain the security and freedom that library patrons have long had to read and learn about anything from politics to health to science without worrying that someone is looking over their shoulder or could retrace their steps…

"Increasing access to books is a very important mission that we strongly support, but readers must not be forced to pay for digital books with their privacy."

That is always the problem with Google. To use so many of their "free" services you pay by giving up your privacy.  Many users don’t understand how much private information they turn over.

Not surprisingly Google responded — without mentioning the letter — on its Public Policy Blog. Cutting to the chase the response was: Duh, trust us. We’re thinking about it. Privacy is important, duh…

Or to quote:

 "[O]ur our settlement agreement hasn’t yet been approved by the court, and the services authorized by the agreement haven’t been built or even designed yet. That means it’s very difficult (if not impossible) to draft a detailed privacy policy …"

"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."

It really shouldn’t take much thought because the solution is simple. As the letter demands,  Google must adhere to these four principles:

"1) Protection Against Disclosure: Readers should be able to use Google books without worrying that the government or a third party is reading over their shoulder…
"2) Limited Tracking: Just as readers can anonymously browse books in a library or
bookstore, they should also be able to search, browse, and preview Google books without being forced to register or provide any personal information to Google…

"3) Affirmative Consent:  Readers should have complete control of their purchases and purchasing data…
"4) User Transparency: Readers should know what information is being collected and maintained about them and when and why reader information has been disclosed…" 

If you want to help Google with its "thinking," the Electronic Frontier Foundation has made it easy to do so. They set up an action page where you can send CEO Eric Schmidt a message about how important privacy is.

Based on its record, Google needs all the help it can get. Please drop Eric a line, he’ll appreciate it even if he’s too busy to personally acknowledge every message he gets.

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This post was written by:

John M. Simpson

- who has written 361 posts on Inside Google.

John M. Simpson is a leading voice on technological privacy and stem cell research issues. His investigations this year of Google’s online privacy practices and book publishing agreements triggered intense media scrutiny and federal interest in the online giant’s business practices. His critique of patents on human embryonic stem cells has been key to expanding the ability of American scientists to conduct stem cell research. He has ensured that California’s taxpayer-funded stem cell research will lead to broadly accessible and affordable medicine and not just government-subsidized profiteering. Prior to joining Consumer Watchdog in 2005, he was executive editor of Tribune Media Services International, a syndication company. Before that, he was deputy editor of USA Today and editor of its international edition. Simpson taught journalism a Dublin City University in Ireland, and consulted for The Irish Times and The Gleaner in Jamaica. He served as president of the World Editors Forum. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Harpur College of SUNY Binghamton and was a Gannett Fellow at the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii. He has an M.A. in Communication Management from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

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