Our Dark Digital Nightmare

I’ve been following the Google Book Search litigation pretty closely. I’m a bibliophile, so hey! This story in the New York Review of Books by Robert Darnton simply must be read by all, not just bibliophiles. On principle Google’s desire to digitize all the books in the world is a good idea. Who could not possibly appreciate having every book ever written at their fingertips?

Of course, there are serious problems with the way Google is going about it. As always, privacy issues are front and center, but also monopoly power. Both, in my opinion, alone should nix the deal. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Darnton makes some very cogent points about the pending litigation and Google’s efforts to water it down. The most important critiques in the article come from a European legal draft. I include the points I think are key in summary:

1. The settlement gives Google a virtual monopoly over orphan works, even though it has no claim to their copyrights.

2. Its opt-out provision, which means that authors will be deemed to have accepted the settlement unless they notify Google to the contrary, violates the rights inherent in authorship.

4. It gives Google the power to censor its database by excluding up to 15 percent of the digitized works.

5. Its guidelines for pricing will promote Google’s commercial interests, not the good of the public, through the use of algorithms created by Google according to Google’s secret methods.

6. It favors secrecy in general, hiding audit procedures, preventing the public from attending meetings in which Google and the Registry will discuss library matters, and even requiring Google, the authors, and publishers to destroy all documents relevant to their agreement on the settlement.

Google’s reaction to all this is oddly reminiscent of Citigroup’s actions pre-Travelers merger when Sandy Weill said, “repeal Glass-Steagall or not, we’re merging.” He basically defied the government to do something. Of course, we all know what happened there.

This is an equally grim situation, although it may not seem that way. The power of one corporation having all the books every written under its corporate, profit driven power should give us all pause. And it should awaken Congress and the president Obama form their slumber. As I said, in principle, Google’s idea is an excellent one. But in the end we are talking about a public good and a public service. This is not a project a private corporation should be heading up. This is properly a function of the state. As Darnton notes:

The most ambitious solution would transform Google’s digital database into a truly public library. That, of course, would require an act of Congress, one that would make a decisive break with the American habit of determining public issues by private lawsuit. The legislation would have to settle ancillary problems—how to adjust copyright, deal with orphan books, and compensate Google for its investment in digitizing—but it would have the advantage of clearing up a messy legal landscape and of giving the American people what they deserve: a national digital library equal to the needs of the twenty-first century. But it is not clear how Google would react to such a buyout.

I think we all know how Google would react. Lobbyists and TV sycophants trotted out bemoaning government intrusion into a matter of the market.

Such is the way of the world now, I suppose. And yet, the idea of a virtual library of Alexandria at our fingertips, in our Kindle, at any given time?

One can hope.

2 Responses to “Our Dark Digital Nightmare”

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