Is Google or the government the problem?

Geoffrey Manne —  3 December 2009

Well, you probably know my answer to that one.

I was interested to read Fred von Lohmann’s short take on the privacy aspects of the Google Books Settlement, available here.

Fred and the EFF have, basically, two concerns.  The first is that

[t]he products and services envisioned by the proposed settlement will give Google not only an unprecedented abililty to track our reading habits, but to do so at an unprecedented level of granularity. Because the books will be accessed on Google’s servers, Google will not only know what books readers search for and access, but will also know which pages they read, how long they stayed on each page, what book they read before, and which books they access next. This is a level of reader surveillance that no library or bookstore has ever had.

But who–or what–is “Google” in this statement?  Is there ever an actual person, rather than a software program, tracking our reading habits?  If not, what’s the concern?  Computers don’t judge, and any chilling effect would have to be severely, if not completely, mitigated by the knowledge that the only tracking being done is being done by a string of 1s and 0s in a computer.  And even if there is an actual person at Google with access, who cares?  I don’t mean that rhetorically.  I mean, how many people care if some random Google employee could possibly, maybe know their reading habits?  How likely is it that out of the massive amount of data streaming through Google’s computers, any particular person’s data would be noticed or viewed by a person?  I’d have to say the risk is statistically indistinguishable from zero.

Moreover, privacy advocates like the EFF often act as if there are no corresponding benefits to Google’s ability to track our reading habits.  In fact, I can think of many, and at first glance it seems like these dramatically outweigh the potential cost of Google’s computers “knowing” even everything about me, let alone just my reading habits.

The EFF’s second concern is that

it’s not just Google that might want records about your reading habits. A core concern EFF has with the proposed settlement is that under it Google need not insist on a warrant before turning over this sensitive reader information to governmental authorities or private third parties. This is hardly a hypothetical risk: between 2001 and 2005, libraries were contacted by law enforcement seeking information on patrons at least 200 times. And in 2006 alone, AOL received almost 1,000 requests each month for information in civil and criminal cases.

Now I have much more sympathy with the concern about the government snooping–after all, even if “Google” knows my reading habits perfectly, it’s not clear to me that they have any incentive or ability to do anything about it.  The government, on the other hand, is very different.  I just don’t see how this is Google’s problem.

I have never understood why organizations like the EFF and commentators like Larry Lessig make so little of the distinction between private and public access to personal information.  In one case, the consequence could be the use of force by the state; in the other the consequence could be . . . that a computer programmer in Mountain View laughs at the fact that you read “Getting It Up Without Viagra” 4 times last month.

Why this should be Google’s problem, I have no idea.  I discussed this issue before:

I find it interesting that the “blame” for privacy incursions by the government is being laid at Google’s feet. Google isn’t doing the . . . incursioning, and we wouldn’t have to saddle Google with any costs of protection (perhaps even lessening functionality) if we just nipped the problem in the bud. Importantly, the implication here is that government should not have access to the information in question–a decision that sounds inherently political to me. I’m just a little surprised to hear anyone (other than me) saying that corporations should take it upon themselves to “fix” government policy by, in effect, destroying records.

If the problem is government access to private information, then take away the government’s right to access that information.  In fact, as Fred points out,

This lack of protections for reader privacy stands in sharp contrast to the privacy protections that librarians and bookstores have been fighting for in connection with physical books for decades. Nearly every state has laws protecting the privacy of library patrons. Yet when Google scans books it got from libraries, privacy protections could be left behind at the digital threshold if Google doesn’t stand up for them.

Precisely.  Pass a law.  This is not an issue for Google, and certainly not a reason to oppose the settlement.  Use of Google Books is entirely voluntary, and the only appreciable threat is from the government’s access to private information via Google.  So stop the government, don’t stop Google.

Geoffrey Manne

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