Google Books faces further scrutiny

Brian Turner -

Google faces further scrutiny over its Google Books project, as the European Commission now grapples the issue of how European copyright will apply.

The problem is accentuated by the fact that US and European laws on copyright protections can be markedly different, raising issues of how Google Books would handle books in print on one continent, but not another.

Google has been trying to digitise whole libraries and put them online, which in itself might seem a laudable aim.

However, while most people may think of Google as just a search engine, Google have essentially become one of the world’s biggest advertising companies through their use of Google Adwords - the ads that appear on the right hand side of search results, and are also syndicated on third party websites, including Techwatch.

Google have also made it abundantly clear that they intend to earn commission from book sales from its Google Books project.

Google - all your base are belong to us, for advertising purposes

Since Google was first developed at Stanford University by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the company has promoted its ideal “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”.

What Google don’t state in the small print is that it also wants to stick advertising all over it.

Additionally, in order to help make its advertising services more commercially attractive, Google are also involved in what is probably the world’s biggest commercial data collection and processing project.

Essentially, every time you use a Google service, Google is able to track individual user habits and interests through the trail they leave online. And use this data to help better its advertising services.

Google has repeatedly sought to expand their ability to do this by providing as many internet services as possible, not least free email known as GMail, where as much user activity can be tracked, and user emails scanned for topics, keywords, and social connections.

The purchase of Urchin analytics, re-released as Google Analytics means that Google can now collect user data from every single website that installs it - and, of course, webmasters and corporate giants do install Google Analytics, in order to see how to make their own advertising work more effectively.

And that means Google can effectively monitor a huge chunk of the internet.

Phorm - aka Webwise - has already been heavily criticised over privacy issues for looking to provide behavioural advertising, targeted towards individual user interests and behaviours from their recorded habits.

Google has already announced it will be offering the company’s advertisers something very similar.

Privacy, rights, and ownership

Google is rightly being pressured by privacy concerns, and while Google are now being forced to reduce the time it takes to anonymise data, the company is still dragging its feet on the matter as reluctantly as possible.

It is this combination of invasive tracking and data retention that runs through one of the key objections to the Google Books project - just how much of this data will Google store, and how much will be used for commercial purposes? All of it, presumably - because they can.

Another key problem is accentuated by the fact that Google has an even worse track record when it comes to copyright and trademark protections.

A beautiful piece of engineering the Google Search Engine may be, but at it’s heart the principle is simple - scrape copyright content from the internet and slap ads on it.

So when the concept of Google Books was first put into play, Google simply started copying as many books as possible.

This put them in direct conflict with book publishers, who pointed out that, you know, copying books for commercial purposes without authorisation is actually a big copyright violation.

Rather than back down, Google defended itself through a court class action suit, before trying to woo the publishers with promises of revenues from the project.

While many writers will understandably be quite happy just to have their work more widely available, the awkward question as to who exactly owns the digital versions has already been raised, and Google already appears to presume that right.

Google: A company of two faces

Google is a company with two faces - on the one hand, a group of brilliant techies and geeks who early on gave the impression of living in ivory towers, above and beyond the concern of the rest of us mere mortals.

Luckily, Google has since been trying to be more accessible, but the company still suffers from a degree of coldness to outside interests.

Got a problem with your free Google product? Then use Google’s online product support, where other Google users can try and offer advice, but no Google employees will take part.

The Google employees, of course, are trying instead to built better products and services for the Google company, which can then leverage more advertising revenue.

Because that is the second face of Google most people try not to acknowledge - that Google is a giant billion-dollar multinational, whose primary aim is to make money from everything it does.

And the best way to do this is to ensure that you use everything Google, so that Google always knows what you have done, what you are doing, what you are likely to do - in order to sell you better advertising.

Don’t believe me? Ask yourself why Google is launch its own Operating System next year, in order to rival Microsoft Windows.

Because Google is not expected to charge for this, ask yourself why the company might otherwise be providing this for free, and note that this Operating System is almost certain to provide regular information on your user habits to Google’s datacenters.

If it wasn’t for the harmless techie image that the Google brand has come to represent, you’d think I was writing dystopian science fiction.

And this is why people are willing to negotiate with Google over the digitisation of entire libraries - Google not only has a positive brand image among users, the company also has the sheer technical brilliance to be actually able to pull off what would otherwise be a logistical and technical nightmare.

After all, it’s taking the combined forces of Microsoft, Amazon, and Yahoo to try and build a second-place rival.

The problem being the position of sheer arrogance Google takes in presuming that it can break copyright laws and proclaim “the public good” as a defence, despite the fact that commercial interests underlay Google’s approach - they have already booked in a 37% commission from any resulting book sales from the project.

In the meantime, the European Commission is now talking to Google, but perhaps they should be advised to forget the company name, and work through any deal with a degree of caution as might be expected in negotiation with any other giant corporate entity.

After all, Google may proclaim that taking ownership of other people’s copyright makes perfect sense for Google - just don’t ever dare suggest that Google disrespects its own ownership rights.

Such as turn the Google Adwords platform, Google Search algorithm, Gmail software, Google Analytics, and other Google products, over the to the public domain for Open Source development.

After all, those rights belong to Google - and don’t dare imagine Google would give those up without a fight, no matter any argument of it being for “the public good”.

Google wants to index as much information, and as much of the internet as possible, for its own search engine offering. How ironic then that it blocks its own website content from being indexed by other search engines via its robots.txt files.

It seems there are a number of issues the European Commission should think carefully about when determining whether Google really can serve any public interest argument if Google Books moves forward.

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