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The Time Has Come to Protect Reader Privacy

Nicole Ozer,
Technology & Civil Liberties Director, ACLU of Northern California
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February 18, 2010

(Originally posted on the ACLU of Northern California’s Bytes and Pieces blog.)

Today, Google and the authors and publishers who sued Google are hoping that United States District Court Judge Denny Chin will approve their settlement and allow Google to launch the world’s largest digital library and bookstore combined.

While the ACLU strongly supports increased access to books, we have filed an objection to this settlement on behalf of a coalition of authors and publishers — including best sellers Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem and publisher Lawrence Ferlenghetti — who have serious concerns that reader privacy and free speech is being left out of the story. They think that a settlement that does not protect the privacy and free speech of readers is not fair to their readers, or fair to them. That’s why we’re in federal court in New York today, along with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Samuelson Law, Technology, and Public Policy Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, urging Judge Chin to reject the settlement and insist on one with greater privacy and free speech protections for users.

In particular, the agreement lacks protections against government and third party disclosure of reader records and the mechanisms for user transparency that are crucial to maintaining the ability to read without fear of reprisal. Google has not promised to protect reader records by responding only to properly issued warrants from law enforcement and court orders from third parties. Google has also refused to promise to provide readers with access to what information is being collected and maintained about them and detail when and why reader information is being disclosed. Google has refused to make public even general numbers related to government requests for information.

What you choose to read says a lot about who you are, what you value, and what you believe. That’s why you should be able to learn about anything from politics to health without worrying that someone is looking over your shoulder.

The ACLU has fought alongside libraries and book stores time and again to defend the privacy rights of readers. Now we are doing what we can today to help protect reader privacy rights in the digital era.

Under its current design, Google Book Search can monitor the books you browse, the pages you read, and even the notes you take in the “margins.” Without strong privacy protections, all of your browsing and reading history could be collected, analyzed, and turned over to the government or third parties without your knowledge or consent.

In a January 2009 New York Times article, a senior member of Google Book Search’s engineering team illustrated just the kind of detailed information that the company can track. He admitted that he “was monitoring search queries recently when one…caught his attention.” The engineer could easily tell that the reader spent four hours perusing 350 pages of an obscure 1910 book.

Concerns about maintaining the privacy of reading records are not hypothetical. Time and again, the government and third parties have tried to collect and use evidence of reading habits in order to identify individuals with unpopular thoughts and beliefs. During the McCarthy hearings, Americans were questioned on whether they had read Marx and Lenin, and even whether their friends had books about Stalin on their bookshelves. History repeated itself, when following 9/11, the FBI targeted libraries, demanding information on patrons. It is estimated that by December 2001, 85 libraries had been approached by the FBI, and more than 200 libraries were targeted between 2001 and 2005.

Digital book records have also already been targeted (PDF). For example, in 2007, Amazon fought a law enforcement subpoena originally requesting the identities of 24,000 book buyers.

Given the long and troubling history (PDF) of government efforts to compel libraries and booksellers to turn over records about readers, it is essential that digital book services like Google Book Search incorporate strong privacy protections. Without strong reader privacy protections, these services can easily become a one-stop shop for government and third party fishing expeditions into the personal details of your life.

Nothing in the settlement provides any real protection against such requests for Google Books’ users.

Google’s privacy policy does not resolve this concern either. See our blog post here and Statement to the House Judiciary Committee here (PDF).

Nor do Google’s statements to the Federal Trade Commission here (PDF).

Says Michael Chabon: “If there is no privacy of thought — which includes implicitly the right to read what one wants, without the approval, consent or knowledge of others — then there is no privacy, period.”

For more information on Google Books and to take action by contacting Google and demanding robust privacy protections, visit

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