GBS and Students: Ryan Radia of CEI on Fearing .Gov, Not .Com

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, Ryan Radia, an information policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, argues that the privacy concerns raised by the settlement are not convincing.

Wonder why practically every student today uses Gmail, YouTube, or some other Google service? Chances are it’s because they’re free. Designing and running these services, however, is not.

So how does Google make enough money to fund its services when it doesn’t charge the vast majority of its users? Simple: Advertising, which accounts for 99% of Google’s revenue.

Online ads can be annoying – we’ve all encountered obtrusive pop-ups – but they play a crucial role in online commerce. In 2008, advertisers spent over $23 billion on Web ads. It’s no secret why so many firms buy ads – done properly, advertising can build brand reputation, spur sales, and inform potential customers. But perhaps the best part about advertising is that it sustains free Web services.

Google Book Search is no exception. While Google would sell digital books under the proposed settlement it’s reached with authors and publishers, advertising would still likely generate a large share of revenue for Google Books.

This is great news for authors and readers alike. Authors would earn the majority of ad revenues (63%, according to the latest version of the settlement). Users would also benefit, because the Google Book deal would allow anybody in the U.S. to freely search and browse tens of millions of currently unavailable books.

Yet not everyone is happy about the deal. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, ACLU, and others have called for strict limits on the data Google may collect from Book Search users. The groups argue that storing detailed information about what books individuals read and purchase would violate readers’ privacy.

These groups forget that data collection and strong privacy protections can and do coexist. Amazon’s Kindle, a portable reading device that has sold millions of digital books, stores extensive data on its users. ACLU and EFF haven’t identified a single actual harm that’s resulted from a breach involving Kindle, or any other digital book service for that matter.

Google’s business depends on user trust, so it has a huge incentive to keep user data as safe as possible.

Google’s critics should turn their attention to the real privacy threat: Government. To date, courts have refused to apply Fourth Amendment protections to data stored with “cloud” services like Google’s. Thus, a mere subpoena – civil or criminal – is all it takes to force Google to disclose user information to the feds.

ACLU and EFF argue that limiting Google’s data collection reduces the chances that courts will get a hold of personal data. Fair enough. But limiting data collection has serious downsides. Without individualized data, advertisers cannot target ads, meaning users are far more likely to see “dumb” ads. Because users don’t click on these ads as often, advertisers earn less revenue, and authors earn less money. Worse, dumb ads undercut Google’s revenue, reducing its incentive to invest in scanning orphan works.

Limiting government’s power to obtain personal data is a far better solution to privacy concerns than saddling Google with onerous data collection limits.

For its part, Google could help further privacy without endangering advertising by disclosing how many “enforceable requests” for user data it receives, and explaining how it decides whether to challenge court orders that demand user information.

Moreover, concerned users can always adopt privacy-enhancing technologies that protect anonymity and limit data collection on an individualized basis. And traditional libraries, which offer strong privacy protections, aren’t going anywhere.

But let’s not forget that the real privacy violator is the government, not Google.

— Ryan Radia

Previous Posts in This Series

Leave Yours +


  1. Two problems with this:

    firstly, the government is (should be?) controlled by the population as a right, whereas Google is controlled by its shareholders as a pay-to-play;

    secondly, Google only exists because government passed laws that allow corporations to exist, so any data that Google gets is data that government automatically gets if it wants anyway. If Google really upsets a goverment, it can just change the law to kill it.

  2. I almost bought the original version but I kept thinking a new version would be out around the first of the year. As soon as I saw the Kindle 2 was available I ordered it. I think $359 is a lot but after using the Kindle for a few weeks it’s worth the money. I was surprised at a lot of the classics that are available for either free or a couple of bucks. I finished Treasure Island which I hadn’t read since I was a boy and am currently reading Voyage to the Center of the Earth with 3 or 4 more books all loaded up and ready to go. In fact I’m reading several at the same time. This is a great product for anyone that loves to read, I haven’t tried any news papers or magazines yet.
    As for the unit it’s really nice, a little heavier than I thought so I end up reading with the Kindle on a pillow when in bed and on the table when I read at the table. It gets a little heavy after 30 minutes or so if you are holding it. I really like all of the controls and features, I’ve gone back to read the users manual several times. I’ve also used the dictionary quite a bit, really works slick. I tried the audio feature and decided it was too robotic for me. It just isn’t human but it certainly works very well if you want to use it. I guess I was looking for the fond memory of my grandmother reading the Wind in the Willows to me many years ago.
    In summary all I can say is get one. If you really like to read you’re going to love it.

  3. Pingback: Update on the Google Books Settlement & Reader Privacy

  • Comments are Closed