One of the freedoms we have come to take for granted in the United States is one which is not enshrined in the Constitution. That freedom, which has been only haltingly and narrowly defined by high courts, is the freedom of privacy.
We have come to expect that privacy is available to us in many ways—what we do in the privacy of our homes, if not patently illegal, is our business and our business alone. Privacy, in the form of online anonymity, is almost considered a birthright by the current generation.
While not guaranteed by our country's defining document, we all have come to expect that privacy to be available to us in a way we rarely think about: our selection of reading material.
In particular, in public libraries around the nation, most of us are protected not by laws defining our privacy rights, but by the work of librarians adhering to a code of conduct.
In the 1930s, the American Library Association (ALA) recognized the need for librarians to take privacy issues seriously. The seventies, eighties, and nineties saw a rise in ALA's advocacy of patron confidentiality. ALA has continually encouraged librarians to keep a watchful eye on governmental and private institutions that might violate the sacred trust between the library and its users. In its Code of Ethics the ALA recognizes that patrons have a right to privacy (Seaman, 1994; Garoogian, 1991). Despite the ALA's conviction that patron confidentiality must be kept in all circumstances, the ALA is not a lawmaking institution; therefore its codes are not legally binding. The ALA recognizes that ". . . compliance with the Code of Ethics, is voluntary . . . and carries no consequence. Violation does not result in professional sanctions or fines" (Seaman, 1994). In many cases, all that is needed to examine a patron's reading interests is a court-ordered warrant.
While recent legislation—most notably the Patriot Act—have eroded our privacy rights with regard to library records, they still remain mostly intact, thanks in part to actions taken by the ALA. One can hope that, unless there is a sea change in the ALA's stance on this matter, this will continue to be the case.
There are more places, however, where members of the public are now getting their reading material, and where protections afforded by the watchful eye of the librarian are not a given: online.
An example of such a place is Google Book Search.
Google's goal is building Google Book Search is certainly a noble one.
Google Book Search makes finding books easier. We introduced this program in the fall of 2004 to help users search through the oceans of information contained in the world’s books and to help authors and publishers promote their books and expand their sales. Now when you do a search on Google, your results include not only websites, but also pointers to books whose contents contain your search terms. You can also visit the Google Book Search site at http://books.google.com to search specifically for books.
There's a problem, however. Google has not provided a strong privacy protection for users of this service.
As an article at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) website says:
Unlike the privacy you normally experience online, Google’s current practices show it is capable of compiling "dossiers" that reveal our lives in intimate detail. These dossiers may be shared across Google products or with partners, civil litigants, and law enforcement without clear standards for review. Other online bookstores raise similar concerns, but Google is the company seeking federal court approval of what may well become the world’s largest digital book repository -- so it must lead the way in protecting online reader privacy and anonymity.
To deal with this lack of a strong pro-privacy statement by Google, the EFF and the ACLU, working with others, has proposed actions Google could take to provide a reasonable level of consumer privacy rights protections. Among those actions:
- commit that Google will not disclose information about Google Book Search users to government entities or third parties in a pending civil or administrative action absent a warrant or court order (unless they are barred from doing so by law).
- guarantee that Google will not provide the titles of books purchased to any credit card company or other third party directly or indirectly involved in the purchase, including the Book Rights Registry.
- ensure that searching and previewing books does not require user registration or the affirmative disclosure of any personal information.
- allow registered users to control what other local or remote computer users can see about her or his Google Book Search use through the use of separate password-protected "bookshelves" or other technical means.
- ensure that any commitment Google makes to protecting reader privacy on Google Book Search is legally enforceable and that all data Google collects about U.S. Google Book Search users is stored such that it is subject to U.S. legal protections.
(The full list can be found at the EFF website article titled Google Book Search Settlement and Reader Privacy.)
As of this time, Google has taken some steps towards granting privacy to its users, but those steps are limited and are contingent on the results of a settlement in the lawsuit against Google by publishers and authors which may modify those privacy rights.
Bottom line: as benevolent as Google has been to date (with a notable exception in the recent kerfuffle over Chinese censorship), they are a corporation which must insure a return to their shareholders, and consumer rights take a back seat to that. Asking Google to take all steps to protect user privacy is critical—if they do not, the government will have a ready means to take another right from its citizens in a manner impossible before Google's project.