Siva on Google

Siva Vaidhyanathan has written a Google-bashing article for the Chronicle of Higher Education (via if:book), taking a contrarian view of the impact of Google Print (actually now called Google Book Search).

Far from simply extending its renowned search engine to books, Vaidhyanathan claims that Google is building a monopoly, which could ultimately be used to damaging effect. The main potential area of abuse, it appears, would be to personal privacy. Just imagine what Google could do if it knew what books we were searching for online!

Sorry if I’m underwhelmed, but Google Book Search doesn’t strike me as any brand-new invasion of privacy. I think most people would probably be more embarrassed by their standard Google searches than what they might seek in a library card catalog.

Vaidhyanathan goes on to make the legal case against Google, discussing the precedents which show that Google Book Search is different from what it does in cacheing web pages. While I’m not completely convinced by his argument, I do think the legal case is a bit beside the point here. The main question is, should we allow people to search through the text of books online without the copyright-holder’s permission? If it’s a bad thing, then even if current laws allow it, they should be rewritten. If it’s a good thing, we should do all we can to encourage online indexing of books.

In any case, Google is certainly not building a book-searching monopoly. Only a few libraries have agreed to loan their collections to Google; other libraries could choose other methods to index their books online. An intriguing way to accomplish this might be the model of distributed proofreaders, a collective effort to scan books and put them online. Maybe a group of libraries could get a grant that would allow their patrons to scan books instead of xeroxing them (or alternately, digital copiers could store scanned versions simultaneously with printing paper copies). These scans would be added to the library’s digital collection; another group of volunteers would help organize the works as they are collected. Such a system would evolve organically, like open-source software. And like the open-source movement, it may not actually approach the seamlessness and exhaustiveness of commercial versions, but the simple fact of a free competitor could serve to keep commercial businesses in line.

In making this response to Vaidhyanathan, I’m not a mere “Google defender.” I’ve got a lot of qualms with the way Google does business (a few examples: I think Book Search leaves a lot to be desired, I’d like them to be more supportive of the open-source movement, I’d like to see them do a better job indexing databases and other portions of the “deep web,” and I’d appreciate more openness about their intentions), but when Google creates a product as useful as Book Search, I’m not going to criticize it simply for the sake of Google-bashing.

We certainly need to keep our eyes on Google to make sure they don’t abuse their position of power in the online world. And we most definitely shouldn’t complacently accept Google’s products without questioning their motives. But for now, Google Book Search looks to be the most promising online tool for indexing books. We shouldn’t destroy that tool before it has even been created.

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3 Responses to Siva on Google

  1. Thanks for linking and for your insightful comments. I think you are looking at the project with the right attitude and questions.

    I am still convinced that the cost to openness of letting Google trump or crowd out other initiatives (which is happening, although that paragraph got cut in the editing) is a serious enough problem to convince me that Google is in the wrong here. The risk to copyright law from Google-blowback is serious and could squelch other initiatives as well. These are serious concerns.

    I wish we could just do what you suggest, ask “should we allow people to search through the text of books online without the copyright-holder’s permission? If it’s a bad thing, then even if current laws allow it, they should be rewritten. If it’s a good thing, we should do all we can to encourage online indexing of books.”

    However, the way copyright politics are stacked against reasonableness inhibits such common-sense approaches. We have to live in the system that Time-Warner and Disney designed for us.

    Still, your ideas are right on.

    Out of curiosity, where does Google criticism end and “Google bashing” begin?

    Siva

  2. Oh, and Google changed the name to Book Search during Thanksgiving week, when the Chronicle piece was already edited and pasted up.

    I wrote a blog post about this. It really pissed me off!

  3. dave says:

    I am still convinced that the cost to openness of letting Google trump or crowd out other initiatives (which is happening, although that paragraph got cut in the editing) is a serious enough problem to convince me that Google is in the wrong here. The risk to copyright law from Google-blowback is serious and could squelch other initiatives as well. These are serious concerns.

    I can see this is indeed a serious concern — and I believe an open-source initiative like the one I described would probably be less likely to attract the type of blowback you describe. But OTOH, as you point out in your article, Google is the only organization taking on book search in any sort of concerted effort. Sometimes we can’t decide where to fight our battles. I don’t think we can rightfully ask Google to stop this project out of fears that our corporate overlords will lobby Congress to further restrict copyright.

    When you say that rewriting copyright law is a risky proposition, I completely understand where you’re coming from — I’ve read Jessica Littman’s Digital Copyright, and I imagine you have, too. The point I was trying to make is that making a purely legal case against Google Book Search isn’t really the point — there’s a separate issue of what’s the right thing to do, regardless of current law.

    “Google-bashing” might be a little harsh, but I do think your article goes beyond Google criticism. You question whether Google should even be involved in indexing books.

    Finally, the name-change thing was more a point of information than a jab at your fact-checking. Sorry if it came across that way.

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