FTC Spurs Google to Change Privacy Policy for Electronic Books

Google Books can't seem to shake off controversy these days. One of the more fraught aspects of Google's all seeing eye is getting a shakedown, though: The FTC's forced Google to issue a separate privacy policy to protect your book reading habit data.

Google BooksBooks, as part of the greater Google enterprise, was already covered by Google's blanket privacy policy. Google, in discussion with "a number of groups," had been defending its lack of a Books-specific one on this basis. But that all changed when the FTC got on the case, publishing an open letter to Google on the matter that set out the FTC's point pretty clearly: "It is important for Google to develop a new privacy policy, specific to Google Books, that will apply to the current product, set forth commitments for future related services and features, and preserve commitments made in the existing [one]."

Why all the fuss, you might be wondering? Because all the behind-the-scenes information about the documents you're reading is, some would argue, terribly private. It could easily be mined for ways to present you as a reader with more targeted advertising—and that information, associated with potential commercial gain, is a saleable commodity in its own right. The FTC again explains this neatly: "We have concerns about Google gaining access to vast amounts of consumer data regarding the books consumers search for, purchase, and read."

This thinking taps into the whole "words equal power" meme, and though I'm not entirely sure why the electronic books (and mostly out-of-print ones) that you're reading is more personal info than what other content you're reading online (which Google most certainly keeps tabs on), the controversy has pushed Google to act. It's now issued a Books-specific privacy policy that promises to play nicely with your reading habit data. The most interesting thing is that the FTC mentioned "future related services" in its letter, which is a vague suggestion that Google will develop off-shoots from the Google Books project...and Google's even agreed to consider this in its policy. "We've planned in advance for the protections that will later be built," Google admits, even though some of these have yet to be coded into reality, or even dreamed-up.

That's quite a change of heart by the search engine giant, and it could be taken to imply two things. First, that Google's becoming more of a gentle giant, keen to act to protect the privacy of its users. Second, that it's really trying to get the legalities right for a service it thinks will become big-business. My money's more on the second, probably because that's where Google thinks the money is.

[Google Blog via TheRegister]

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4 Comments

  • Barry Dennis

    Google is just preparing for AnyThing, AnyTime,AnyWhere (AAA).
    When your Office,and your School, and your Entertainment is wherever you happen to be, whenever you are there. you're going to be in Google (or Microsoft, or AOL, or Verizon, or Comcast, or Gannett, or Tribune, (or somebody new) heaven.

  • Peter Mirus

    NPR reports (very well, I think) that Google Books is under fire from author advocacy groups who want to make sure that Google Boooks does not deprive authors of the ability to negotiate directly with the publisher of each format of their work (among other issues). One proposed solution (from one of the authors interviewed) was that Google stop this project and that the federal government should take it over, with Congress legislating rights and controls. In my opinion, that would be a huge mistake.

    --
    Peter Mirus
    Chief Executive Officer
    Trinity Consulting, Inc
    trincon.net

  • Barry Dennis

    Google is just preparing for AnyThing, AnyTime,AnyWhere (AAA).
    When your Office,and your School, and your Entertainment is wherever you happen to be, whenever you are there. you're going to be in Google (or Microsoft, or AOL, or Verizon, or Comcast, or Gannett, or Tribune, (or somebody new) heaven.