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
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