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Google: Don't Close the Book on Reader Privacy

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July 23, 2009

The ACLU of Northern California, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at Berkeley Law School sent a letter to Google CEO Eric Schmidt (PDF) today. It was about books. Why books?

Google is planning to dramatically expand its book service, Google Book Search. The good news is that millions of books will be available for browsing, reading, and purchasing online. But the bad news is that Google is leaving reader privacy behind.

What you choose to read says a lot about who you are, what you value, and what you believe. You should be able to read about politics, health, or anything else without worrying that someone is looking over your shoulder. That’s why the ACLU has fought alongside libraries and bookstores time and again to defend the privacy of readers. Now we need your help to protect reader privacy into the digital era.

Currently, Google Book Service can monitor the books you browse and search for, the pages you read, and even the notes you write in the "margins." Without strong privacy protections, all of your browsing and reading history may be collected, tracked, and turned over to the government or third parties without your knowledge or consent.

Given the long and troubling history of government efforts to compel libraries and booksellers to turn over records about readers (PDF), Google Book Service must incorporate strong privacy protections that gives us at least as much privacy in books online as we have in our neighborhood library or bookstore. Without a strong privacy policy that protects reader privacy, Google Books could become a one-stop shop for government and third party fishing expeditions into the personal details of your life.

Our letter demanded that Google, at a minimum, take the following steps to protect reader privacy. If these principles resonate with you, join us by emailing Google CEO Eric Schmidt today and demanding that Google:

  • Protect your reading records. Readers should be able to use Google books without worrying that the government or a third party is reading over their shoulder. Google needs to promise that it will respond only to properly-issued warrants from law enforcement and court orders from third parties, and then only if stronger protections do not apply. It also must promise that it will let readers know as soon as possible if anyone demands access to information about them. In addition, Google must not provide the title of any book browsed or purchased to credit card processors or any other third party.
  • Limit tracking. Just as readers can anonymously browse books in a library or bookstore, they should be able to anonymously browse, search, and preview books using Google Book Search. Google must allow users to browse, search, and preview books without being forced to register or provide any personal information. Google must not keep logging information for any of its Google Book Search services longer than 30 days. In addition, Google must not link any information about a reader's use of Google Book Search with any information about that reader's use of other Google services without specific, informed consent.
  • Give you control over your records. Readers should have complete control of their purchases and purchasing data. Google must enable readers to review and delete their records and have extensive permissions controls for their "bookshelves" or any other reading displays. Google must also permit readers to “give” books to anyone, including to themselves, without tracking.
  • Keep you informed. Readers should know what information is being collected and maintained about them and when and why reader information has been disclosed. Google must develop a robust and easy-to-read privacy policy and publish annually the number and type of demands for reader information that are received.

Google needs to know that you and other readers will not pay for your digital books with privacy. The ACLU of Northern California is committed to working to protect user privacy in Google Books. Please join us!

Three things you can do today to support reader privacy:

  1. Defend your reading privacy and that of others by joining us and sending a message to Google CEO Eric Schmidt in support of a robust privacy policy that satisfies the demands listed above.
  2. Spread the word by forwarding this message, sharing it on Facebook, sending a tweet, or even going old school and just telling a friend or co-worker about this effort. Explain that the Google Book Search settlement is a critical moment that will define the future of reader privacy, and that speaking out now can help architect a better future as digital book systems develop.
  3. Prepare for additional actions to defend reader privacy by checking back here for updated blog posts and signing up as an ACLU-NC e-activist.

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