If Google digitizes the world's books, how will it keep track of what you read?
That's one of the unanswered questions that librarians and privacy experts are grappling with as Google attempts to settle a long-running lawsuit by publishers and copyright holders and move ahead with its effort to digitize millions of books, known as the Google Books Library Project.
For librarians, many of whom are working with Google to digitize their collections of books, it's a thorny question. That's because librarians and the online world have different standards for dealing with user information.
Many libraries routinely delete borrower information, and organizations such as the American Library Association have fought hard to preserve the privacy of their patrons in the face of laws such as the U.S. Patriot Act.
But now, as more and more titles become available in Google Book Search, it's not clear whether digital readers will enjoy the same privacy protections they have at the library.
"Which way are we going to go?" said Michael Zimmer, a professor from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. "Is this service going to be an extension of the library, or an extension of Web searching?"
Zimmer spoke at a panel discussion at the University of California, Berkeley, on Friday. He was one of several panelists who called on Google to make a stronger privacy commitment as it develops the Google Books service.
Google has taken extra steps to preserve privacy with other offerings. It has blurred faces on Google Maps Street View and kept records for Google Health users that are separate from other Google services.
With its mobile location-based service, called Google Latitude, Google doesn't keep a log of user locations. "One wonders if this could be applied in some sense to Books," said Jason Schultz, acting director of the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic.
Google posted a "frequently asked questions" document about Google Books and privacy late last month, but the company plans to release a more formal privacy statement in the coming weeks, according to Google Books engineering director Dan Clancy.
Google often says that privacy is important, but it needs to talk more about what steps it will take, said Chris Hoofnagle, director of the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology's information privacy programs. "The details are what really matter," Hoofnagle said.
"Privacy, by design, requires early intervention," he added.
Last year, Google reached a settlement agreement in a class-action lawsuit brought by authors and publishers who argued that Google Books Library Project violated their copyrights.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York will decide whether to accept this agreement on Oct. 7, but affected parties have until Sept. 4 to submit comments to the court.
Groups such as the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Electronic Frontier Foundation hope that the settlement -- which has yet to be approved by the court -- will provide an opportunity to address privacy concerns and clearly spell out what Google will do, for example, if approached by a government agency and asked for a record of what a user has read.
"It gives us an opportunity to get them to commit in legal language, in a binding document that would be different than all the other products, which are sort of ad hoc," Schultz of the Samuelson Clinic said.
If the settlement agreement isn't modified by the court or the parties involved, however, the activists will have lost that opportunity. But they may be able to push for privacy protections via the U.S. Department of Justice, which has opened an inquiry into Google Book Search, or simply by putting public pressure on Google to respond to their concerns.
At present, the agreement is "absolutely silent on user privacy," said Angela Maycock, assistant director with the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom.
Google has made a lot of statements about privacy, she said, "but they're informal statements, and we need to make sure that those informal statements and assurances actually get codified into policy."