Google has just done something rather wonderful. It is on the verge of an astonishing achievement that will benefit the U.S. for generations, bridging a major part of the digital divide and giving the country a global lead in a key area – scholarship. Its reward: a lawsuit, public criticism from the hastily reconstituted and Orwellian-named “Open Book Alliance” (Microsoft, Yahoo! and Amazon) and scrutiny by the Justice Department. Imagine what might have happened had they had tried to destroy a competitor’s business model by bundling its product into an operating system or attempted to corner the e-book market by making a proprietary closed system to force users to buy online books only form them.I like the irony. Lindsay alerts us to the effort by Microsoft (in particular) and their aborted effort to implement their own digitization program - one which in my view never really got off the ground. With a little bit of a dig, he seems to suggest that Microsoft didn't really have the consumers' or publishers' interest in mind when they unceremoniously canceled the Live Search Books program after their late and halfhearted approach last year. So under those circumstances is Microsoft a viable challenger to this agreement when they chose to abandon their effort?
Only Google stayed the course and so now only Google has the world’s largest digital book archive. So what is it going to do that is so terrible now that it has this archive? According to Google it is simply going to let people search it for free and if they want to buy the books direct them to a range of other sellers – hardly cornering much of the value of book digitization.Lindsay does address three important objections - competition, BRR representation and privacy - and introduces these as follows:
Ignoring the competitively-motivated hyperbole there are some grounds for concern with the Google Book Rights Registry agreement. No legal agreement is perfect and given the way events have picked up speed since Google reached agreement with the Authors Guild, some concerns these do merit some serious consideration. The usual Google refrain "trust us, we do no evil" line may be well intended but the company has already had a couple of near misses on privacy; the Viacom-YouTube lawsuit for example (where Viacom subpoenaed and received full records of all videos seen on YouTube). Moreover Google already caved on censorship in China – clearly as a corporate entity it is susceptible to arm-twisting to a greater degree than the small but well documented number of brave librarians and book sellers in the U.S. who have turned down user reading list requests from the Police and FBI.
Moreover even assuming Google's current management team is well intentioned and trustworthy who can give guarantees about the actions of future generations of management? Considered objections from academics and public watchdog institutions such as the Center for Democracy and Technology fall into three broad categories: (1) lack of competition; (2) limited representativeness of the BRR and its potential for self interested behavior; and (3) PrivacyWith respect to pricing he notes critics of the GBS use the pricing models of academic journal publishers as proof that Google will act with similar disregard for universal access and fairness; however, he does note that Google's behavior to date has been more 'altruistic' than the behavior exhibited by those same publishers. Despite this, he concludes that perhaps some type of regulatory oversight might be called for once the agreement is approved.
On the Book Rights Registry he comments,
The BRR in principle has no incentive to drive down the costs of knowledge and given its privileged position could actually act in self-interested ways – analogies to the Olympics venue selection committees have been made. In addition parallels have been drawn with the BRR's unique gatekeeper position relative to the fragmented base of book users prompting comparisons with the cable industry and health insurers.Again the solution seems to be some sort of oversight of regulation to counter-balance market failure.The EFF position on privacy which I noted a few weeks ago is also referenced as an important issue in not only the debate over the settlement but the wider implications for how Google charts everything we see and do. Books of course hold a particular sacrosanct position in terms of privacy and librarianship and if nothing else many would want Google to act in a similar way to the stand taken by many librarians in the face of subpoena and the FBI.
Lindsey closes with a desire to see the settlement approved by the court noting that the access to knowledge afforded by the agreement exceeds any negative aspects of the deal especially if supervision is also prescribed. His final comments concludes,
With good regulation this repository of human knowledge and ideas could be kept accessible to millions at low or zero cost while ensuring the rights to knowledge and privacy set out in the Bill of Rights could be preserved for generations. What is the alternative? Forcing Google to destroy this database may delight a small number of extremely rich individuals in the Pacific Northwest, but would be one of the greatest acts of Luddite vandalism of modern time. We hope the regulators will be enlightened and bold in the upcoming hearings on October 7th.