Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Burn Down the House-- There's a Devil in the Closet

I'm on a listserv for librarians and this arrived in my inbox recently:

Date: Sat, 18 Dec 2004 16:35:20 -0600
Subject: Google, libraries, and privacy

As you have no doubt heard by now, five major libraries have agreed to let Google digitize all or part of their collections. Google has made arrangements with the New York Public Library and the libraries of Harvard University, Stanford University, the
University of Oxford and the University of Michigan. Stanford and Michigan will let Google digitize everything. New York and Harvard agreed to pilot projects. Oxford agreed only to books and documents prior to 1901.

To address copyright issues, Google will divide material into three categories: 1) public domain material that is displayed in its entirety without ads, 2) copyrighted material that shows only snippets and bibliographic information, and 3) copyrighted material where the publisher has agreed to allow a portion to be displayed by Google, along with sponsored links that return some money to the publisher.

Nowhere in the press have any librarians or academics expressed concerns about privacy issues.

That would be because these books are, as pointed out in the e-mail, public domain, or widely available books. He information contained in them is not double top secret, it's open access. There are no privacy issues concerning the content of any book. Ever. Books are kinda fun like that.

Google has the capacity, the history, and the intention of tracking the browsing habits of anyone and everyone who visits any of their sites. Since its
inception, Google has used a cookie with a unique ID in it that expires in 2038. They record this ID, along with the IP address, the search terms, and a time/date stamp, for everyone who searches at Google. To make matters worse, Google never comments on their relations with officials in the dozens of countries where they operate.

You mean, Google is a business and wants to keep track of what their clients buy and look at? Shocking! Why, that makes them little better than Barnes & Noble, Amazon, the Library of Congress or any book store, anywhere!

Moreover, they can be very misleading about this tracking. When Gmail was launched last April, a Google vice-president initially claimed that there would be an information firewall between Gmail and Google's tracking on their main index search. Within three months, however, after the press interest receded, Google revised their main privacy policy to comply with a new California law. In it they confessed that a single cookie is used across all of their various services, and all information is shared between them.( see

Welcome to the Internet, sir. If you don't want to leave digital footprints, stay off the web.

I am asking the American Library Association to address the issue of privacy in cases where search engine digitization projects are proposed to libraries. Beth Givens from the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, Pam Dixon from the World Privacy Forum, and Chris Hoofnagle from EPIC are helping me with this. Here is a letter I wrote to Mitch Freedman:

If you can help us get the word out on this issue, it would be much appreciated. Thank you,
Daniel Brandt
PIR president
Public Information Research

I've left off Mr. Brandt's contact info, to protect his privacy.

I've noticed lately that a lot of the old Guard Librarians are afraid of Google. Numerous e-mails have been circulating about the proposed digitization of library holdings, Google Scholar and just plain Google. You'd think from the tone, that Google is Sauron offering librarians to hold his ring. What the hell are they so afraid of? No one's saying that Google will replace libraries or librarians (except a few librarians, oddly enough) and frankly the notion is absurd. Google is not going to Deascession, throw out, burn asunder or in any other fashion get rid of the physical books they are digitizing. They'll still be there in the library for browsing and Inter Library Loan requests. The LA Daily News:

"You'll see a highly faithful, photographic, high-resolution image of each page," said John Wilkin, a librarian at the University of Michigan who's been working with members of the so-called "Google Print" project for more than two years. He said that, by mid-2005, Google will have tens of thousands of the university's books in digital format -- and ready to be placed online.

Wilkin doesn't think having books and excerpts online will replace the brick-and-mortar library. But he does envision a day when people will be able to browse "virtual book shelves," arranged by topic or catalog number.

Michael Gorman, president-elect of the American Library Association, thinks the value of helping people from anywhere in the world view a library's special collections is "almost priceless."

Still, he is "underwhelmed" with the idea of short excerpts of copyrighted books, which he says provide information that -- unless read as part of the whole book -- is limited and often useless.

"The English language with words out of context doesn't really mean anything," says Gorman, who's also dean of library services at California State University, Fresno.

Other librarians agree that there are kinks that Google will need to work out. For instance, to make sure the library content isn't buried beneath traditional Web content, many think Google will need to create a separate area for searching books only.

Among them is Andrew Herkovic, strategic projects director at the Stanford University Libraries.

Still, Herkovic believes people will still find this latest Google feature useful.

"This is a way of enhancing access to the literature, not a way to replace it," he says. "You can't know you want it if you don't know it exists."

Herkovic says this system will, at the very least, let Web searchers know the book they need is out there.

I use Google frequently to write my papers for Grad School, and to do research for my fiction, which is why I'm excited about Google Scholar and this digitization program: it means I'll be able to find the information I need faster. But I also frequent the shelves of libraries and bookstores, request books through ILL and do things the old fashioned way, when I'm not pressed for time. I use Google tools to get me started in the digital world and really, that's what Google is for: it's a digital supplement to traditional research, not a replacement for libraries or librarians. So, calm down Mr. Gorman, Mr Brandt and all you other upitty librarians. All Google is doing is changing the way we do our job, something we're used to-- or at least should be, by now.


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