Google: Don't Close the Book on Reader Privacy

Mar 22, 2001
ACLU of Northern California

What you choose to read says a lot about who you are, what you value, and what you believe. That’s why you should be able to learn about anything from politics to health without worrying that someone is looking over your shoulder. The ACLU has fought alongside libraries and bookstores time and again to defend the privacy rights of readers. Now we need your help to protect reader privacy rights in the digital era.

Google is planning to dramatically expand its book service, Google Book Search. The good news is that millions of books will be available for browsing and reading online. The bad news is that Google is leaving reader privacy behind. Under its current design, Google Book Search can monitor the books you browse, the pages you read, and even the notes you take in the "margins." Without strong privacy protections, all of your browsing and reading history could be collected, analyzed, and turned over to the government or third parties without your knowledge or consent.

Given the long and troubling history of government efforts to compel libraries and booksellers to turn over records about readers, it is essential that Google Book Search incorporate strong privacy protections. Without a strong policy to protect reader privacy, Google Book Search could become a one-stop shop for government and third party fishing expeditions into the personal details of your life.

The ACLU of Northern California, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at University of California Berkeley are asking the public to join them in demanding that Google take the following important steps to protect reader privacy:

Protection Against Disclosure: Readers should be able to use Google books without worrying that the government or a third party is reading over their shoulder. Google must promise that it will protect reader records by responding only to properly-issued warrants from law enforcement and court orders from third parties. It also must promise that it will tell readers if anyone demands access to information about them, before that information is disclosed if possible.

Limited Tracking: Just as readers can anonymously browse books in a library or bookstore, they should be able to anonymously browse, search, and preview books using Google Book Search. Google must allow users to browse, search, and preview books without being forced to register or provide any personal information. Google must not keep logging information for any of its Google Book Search services longer than 30 days. In addition, Google must not link any information about a reader's use of Google Book Search with any information about that reader's use of other Google services without specific, informed consent.

User Control: Readers should have complete control of their purchases and purchasing data. Readers must be able to review and delete their records and have extensive permissions controls for their "bookshelves" or any other reading displays. Readers also must be able to “give” books to anyone, including to themselves, without tracking. Google also must not reveal any information about Google Book Search use to credit card processors or any other third parties.

User Transparency: Readers should know what information is being collected and maintained about them and when and why reader information has been disclosed. Google must develop a robust privacy policy and publish annually the number and type of demands for reader information that are received.

Google needs to know that readers will not pay with digital books with their privacy. The time is now to make sure that Google doesn't close the book on reader privacy. Please join us in this effort!

Learn more:

Issue Paper - Digital Books: A New Chapter for Reader Privacy

Privacy Authors and Publishers' Objection to Proposed Settlement (ACLU, EFF, Samuelson Clinic)

ACLU Statement to House Judiciary Committee Re: Google Book Search

ACLU-NC, EFF, Samuelson Clinic letter to Google CEO Eric Schmidt [pdf]

Who Wants to Know What You're Reading? [pdf]

Privacy Demands for Google Book Search [pdf]

EFF's Google Book Search page

EPIC's Google Page

Google's Google Book Search Settlement page

Public Index