Saturday, January 10, 2009

Google Books and Social Responsibility

The digitization of books by Google is a massive project that will result in the privatization of a public good: the contents of libraries. While the libraries will still be there, Google will have a de facto monopoly on the online version of their contents.

While regulation of industry has fallen out of favor in these 'free market' times, we do have a history of making particular demands on companies whose products and services have an important social impact, such as broadcast television or telephone services. This is especially the case where one company has a monopoly on the product area. There are some functions that are just too important to be left to the interests of one company or to market forces, and so we regulate them to protect the interests of civil society.

If I were in a position to require social responsibility of Google and its digitization program, these would be my terms:


While Google is a hot company today, it may not last forever. Actually, it probably won't be around for the 200-odd years that have been covered by the libraries it is working with. To protect against the loss of the digitized books should Google either disband or decide not to continue the Books product line, Google should be required to place the digital copies in escrow, where they will be preserved. My preference would be for the escrow body to be a public institution (or a group of such institutions) that has proven longevity and stable public support.

Intellectual Freedom

The First Amendment prevents the government from censoring its citizens, and we rely heavily on this key right as the basis for many of our freedoms. Private companies are not bound by the First Amendment; as a matter of fact, in law they are protected by it as honorary persons. This means two things: first, that private companies can (and do) censor their products, and second, that they can be held liable for any social harm that is perceived if they do not censor. Thus publishers can be held liable for errors of fact in the books they produce, or a company that promises a 'child friendly' web site can be held liable if pornography slips through their filter.

I want Google to have the same right to deliver books to users that publicly funded libraries do. How this could be worked out in terms of law and liability I must leave to others to determine, but what I am thinking of like the of common carrier model that has been used for communications companies. Basically, Google should be required to carry all digital Books without discrimination and without liability.


Public libraries are bound by state laws to protect the privacy of their users. This protection generally takes the form of enforced confidentiality over any records of library use. This is, in a sense, the other side of the intellectual freedom coin: people are only free to access the speech of others if they are guaranteed that they will not be watched or tracked, and that their information access will not be revealed to others. There are no laws that bind private companies to this same standard, but companies are held to their own promises of privacy to their users. Google should develop a particularly strict privacy policy for the Books product, and should be willing to allow auditing of its practices so that users can trust the company's practices. Libraries themselves will insist on such a guarantee if they are to include the Book product in the services they provide to their own users.


One of the things that has greatly frustrated librarians in their attempts to use Google products is the lack of information about decisions that are made by the company. Already there have been cases of books being withdrawn from full view without notice, making it hard to rely on the product.

Once we have licensed this product, we have a 'deal' with Google that is different to the open endedness of the free Google products. Part of this deal needs to be that we can be informed about the product we are licensing. If the Book product will be licensed by educational institutions, it has to be possible for those institutions to know the status of works and to understand what decisions can be made. Transparency also implies a process for appeal or at least discussion with the vendor about decisions, because those decisions will affect the value the product has in our environments.

... and probably more

This is just a short list, and this is a blog post, not a final thesis. I present these ideas primarily to begin a discussion about the impact of the Google Books product on the public and in particular on public institutions like libraries and universities. The settlement agreement goes into quite a bit of detail about the business case of the Books product, but says nothing about customer needs or support. As potential customers, libraries have a social responsibility to their users to negotiate the license terms with freedom in mind.


Eric Lease Morgan said...

In a phrase, I concur.

The mass digitization of books is a good thing, and for the most part I applaud the Google Books project. I think it is especially beneficial to the participating institutions.

I also applaud the efforts of the Open Content Alliance. Their digitization project is along the same lines as Google Books except all the digitized content is expected to be in the public domain. Once digitized, books are made available from the Internet Archive and easily mirrored locally. This allows anybody with a modicum of computer expertise to create digital collections whose format allows for services beyond, "Look what I own."

In our networked environment, libraries need to re-articulate the definition of "collection".

Unknown said...

Karen, I'm very pleased that you're raising these issues. I share your concern that Google has ended up with a monopoly on the books that they have been digitising, and think that librarians have a responsibility to question this locking up of content.

As a profession, we need to discuss the impact of this development on the traditional freedom of library-housed content more widely, and not be seduced by 'quick wins'.

Anonymous said...

I am a self-published author of a prize-winning art history book intended for scholars and libraries. There is a nominal published (Beaver's Pond Press), but I paid about $65,00 for everything from acquring photographs to printing and distribution costs (the latter ongoing). It sells for $70. I have tried repeatedly to no avail to opt out of the Google copying project, but it is impossible to get through to Google. The decdicated website to opt out ( seems to be a joke. Any suggestion about whom to contact and how would be appreciated.
Eileen Manning Michels

Karen Coyle said...

Eileen, the page for authors ( has an email address for questions, but it also has a paper form you can fill out. I've poked into the database and it seemed straightforward to me, but I didn't have anything to claim so I couldn't really try out the functionality. I believe that Google really needs to make this work in order to abide by the settlement, so if you are having trouble they should want to fix it. I'd be interested in hearing if others are having problems, as well.