September 11, 2009

Google Books Settlement Sharing Offer - And Aton's Dilemma from Outer Space

Greetings. I'm on record as being in favor of the Google Books settlement. It is not perfect of course, but viewed as a binary, thumbs up or thumbs down proposition, I consider the benefits it brings for access to out-of-print, orphan works to outweigh various negative considerations. Interest in the settlement is in high gear right now, with court testimony regarding the proposal currently ongoing.

Last May, in Untangling Orphaned Works in the Proposed Google Book Search Settlement I attempted to address some complaints that detractors of the settlement proposal have expressed. In particular, I suggested that it might be useful if Google would make scanned books covered by the settlement available in some form and basis to competitors, to help neutralize accusations that the settlement unfairly favored Google.

So I was pleased to hear today an announcement from Google that out-of-print (including orphan) books that would go online via the settlement would be made available for any book retailer to access and sell, via any Internet-connected devices. While it is unrealistic to assume that this will eliminate all opposition to the settlement, it does demonstrate an important degree of good faith.

One complaint I've frequently received from persons who object to the settlement involves the privacy of records involving book viewing by Google Books users, particularly those books that would be covered by the settlement.

Google recently published a specific Google Books privacy policy that I believe is a good one.

However, a number of correspondents writing to me have noted concerns related to my November, 2005 blog item An Online Library from Science Fiction. In that piece, I referenced the anti-hero ("Aton") of an old Science Fiction novel, who traveled to a "library planet" to get physical access to research books, since he knew that research through the commonly used online galactic library system would flag his rather suspicious queries.

We can call this "Aton's Dilemma" -- and it does raise a pertinent point. While the Google Books privacy policy is a very reasonable one, there still remains a key difference between a typical physical library and online library that concerns many people at the gut level.

Fundamentally, the problem is that it's usually possible to walk into a library, grab virtually any typical books from ordinary collections off the shelves, read them, and leave -- with no record of your specific reading activities (other perhaps than some rather generic closed circuit camera images merely showing your presence in the facility).

But with an online library -- as was Aton's concern -- you leave a trail of your every activity, and even when the custodian of those records promises to reasonably and lawfully protect that information, the mere existence of that data in the first place will continue to significantly bother some observers.

I'd hate to see such concerns contribute to any possible derailing of the settlement.

One possible solution to the "dilemma" in this case might be for Google to promise "accelerated destruction" of Book Search, settlement works-related tracking data (e.g. raw IP address information) much faster than would be the case under Google's general privacy policy.

Whether we're talking about hours, days, weeks, or whatever, the sooner that data is expunged from its raw form, the closer we'll approach the "walk into the library" level of privacy.

Google points out that IP addresses are used for access control purposes in Google Books (e.g. to help enforce licensing restrictions affecting the number of pages from any given work displayed to a given user, etc.) and for other quite justifiable logistical purposes.

However, it seems likely to me that most or all of those needs could be met in an environment where the complete, raw, IP address data is rapidly hashed or otherwise transformed in manners that would still provide the necessary statistical and control-related data, but still sufficiently obscure the actual IP addresses to provide reasonable anonymity to those Book Search users as appropriate.

Obviously the devil is in the details with any such techniques, and I certainly wouldn't propose a specific road map for their implementation at this stage.

But I very much want to see the Google Books settlement succeed, and to the extent that additional levels of competitive confidence and library-like privacy can be reasonably provided -- that will help to convince current detractors of the settlement that it is actually worth their support -- I hope that such avenues will be explored.


Posted by Lauren at September 11, 2009 12:12 AM | Permalink
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