GBS and Students: EFF's Rebecca Jeschke on Privacy Implications

Although it is being modified, in the interest of better informing students about the Google Books Settlement, Students for Free Culture has solicited the thoughts of a variety of experts who are providing guest posts reflecting on how the settlement will likely impact students.

In this guest post, Rebecca Jeschke of Electronic Frontier Foundation discusses the implications for student privacy.

A college student’s first job is to open his or her mind to new ideas and ways of thinking, challenging personal beliefs and assumptions.  The process of intellectual discovery demands exploration into the different, the challenging, the absurd, and even the uncomfortable.  For many scholars, artists, and scientists, a rigorous look at a broad swath of ideas and theories is the foundation for a life’s work in pushing the boundaries of knowledge.

For anyone interested in this kind of intellectual journey, Google Book Search is an intoxicating idea.  The search giant’s plan to scan and digitize millions of books — and allow users to search for and read those books online — would open up the world’s libraries and bookstores to anyone with Internet access.  But without basic privacy protections, Google Book Search will never live up to its promise to change the way students and others read, research, and explore new ideas.  That’s because the “chilling effect” of Google’s tracking could stop these important journeys in their tracks.

Google will be able to monitor and track the books you browse, even knowing how long you spent on each page, and keep a permanent log of every book you’ve ever bought and what pages you’ve read.  When you purchase access to books, Google can use that information to grow its already long dossiers of Internet users — which is bad enough — but then all of that information is vulnerable to police, the government and other third parties who can seek it with a subpoena.

In the physical world, bookstores and libraries have fought for strong privacy protections, requiring the police to get a warrant before getting access to your reading records.  These strong positions were developed precisely to respect our private, personal relationship with reading and learning, and to block any “chilling effect” violating that privacy might have on Americans’ right to explore the world of ideas. That’s why Google Book Search needs a robust, enforceable privacy policy that gives readers as much privacy in online books as we already have today.

A legal settlement that would pave the way for Google Book Search to go forward without these privacy protections is pending approval from a New York federal district court.  But a group of more than two dozen authors and publishers, represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and others, has filed an objection with the judge.  The coalition—including best-selling novelists Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem along with Anthony Romero of the ACLU and science fiction author Cory Doctorow—presents a list of privacy protections that would improve the settlement, including limiting tracking of users and  requiring a court order or judge-approved warrant before disclosure of the information collected, ensuring user control of personal information stored by Google, and making the system transparent to readers.

The future of books is electronic. Something like Google Book Search is what bookstores and libraries will likely look like going forward.  We can’t let reading privacy be the price we pay for opening the door to the world of knowledge.  You can learn more about the issues at stake here.  

— Rebecca Jeschke

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