sober thoughts on google: privatization and privacy 11.30.2005, 8:18 AM
posted by ben vershbow
Siva Vaidhyanathan has written an excellent essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education on the "risky gamble" of Google's book-scanning project -- some of the most measured, carefully considered comments I've yet seen on the issue. His concerns are not so much for the authors and publishers that have filed suit (on the contrary, he believes they are likely to benefit from Google's service), but for the general public and the future of libraries. Outsourcing to a private company the vital task of digitizing collections may prove to have been a grave mistake on the part of Google's partner libraries. Siva:
The long-term risk of privatization is simple: Companies change and fail. Libraries and universities last.....Libraries should not be relinquishing their core duties to private corporations for the sake of expediency. Whichever side wins in court, we as a culture have lost sight of the ways that human beings, archives, indexes, and institutions interact to generate, preserve, revise, and distribute knowledge. We have become obsessed with seeing everything in the universe as "information" to be linked and ranked. We have focused on quantity and convenience at the expense of the richness and serendipity of the full library experience. We are making a tremendous mistake.
This essay contains in abundance what has largely been missing from the Google books debate: intellectual courage. Vaidhyanathan, an intellectual property scholar and "avowed open-source, open-access advocate," easily could have gone the predictable route of scolding the copyright conservatives and spreading the Google gospel. But he manages to see the big picture beyond the intellectual property concerns. This is not just about economics, it's about knowledge and the public interest.
What irks me about the usual debate is that it forces you into a position of either resisting Google or being its apologist. But this fails to get at the real bind we all are in: the fact that Google provides invaluable services and yet is amassing too much power; that a private company is creating a monopoly on public information services. Sooner or later, there is bound to be a conflict of interest. That is where we, the Google-addicted public, are caught. It's more complicated than hip versus square, or good versus evil.
Here's another good piece on Google. On Monday, The New York Times ran an editorial by Adam Cohen that nicely lays out the privacy concerns:
Google says it needs the data it keeps to improve its technology, but it is doubtful it needs so much personally identifiable information. Of course, this sort of data is enormously valuable for marketing. The whole idea of "Don't be evil," though, is resisting lucrative business opportunities when they are wrong. Google should develop an overarching privacy theory that is as bold as its mission to make the world's information accessible - one that can become a model for the online world. Google is not necessarily worse than other Internet companies when it comes to privacy. But it should be doing better.
Two graduate students in Stanford in the mid-90s recognized that search engines would the most important tools for dealing with the incredible flood of information that was then beginning to swell, so they started indexing web pages and working on algorithms. But as the company has grown, Google's admirable-sounding mission statement -- "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful" -- has become its manifest destiny, and "information" can now encompass the most private of territories.
At one point it simply meant search results -- the answers to our questions. But now it's the questions as well. Google is keeping a meticulous record of our clickstreams, piecing together an enormous database of queries, refining its search algorithms and, some say, even building a massive artificial brain (more on that later). What else might they do with all this personal information? To date, all of Google's services are free, but there may be a hidden cost.
"Don't be evil" may be the company motto, but with its IPO earlier this year, Google adopted a new ideology: they are now a public corporation. If web advertising (their sole source of revenue) levels off, then investors currently high on $400+ shares will start clamoring for Google to maintain profits. "Don't be evil to us!" they will cry. And what will Google do then?
Posted by ben vershbow on November 30, 2005 8:18 AM
tags: Copyright and Copyleft, Libraries, Search and the Web, books, copyright, ethics, google, google_book_search, google_print, intellectual_property, libraries, library, literature, privacy, publishing, university
Siva Vaidhyanathan on November 30, 2005 12:00 PM:
Thanks very much for the nice words about my piece.
K.G. Schneider on November 30, 2005 2:07 PM:
Siva just sweeps aside the cobwebs and thinks on the page. He exactly, exactly, exactly nails my concern. I wish within my profession we had the kind of intelligent leadership that could raise these points as he does without sounding like a Luddite.
dave munger on November 30, 2005 2:44 PM:
I've posted on this over at Word Munger. I don't think Siva will be as happy about what I have to say there.
Jack Stephens on November 30, 2005 4:59 PM:
Libraries should not be relinquishing their core duties to private corporations for the sake of expediency.
Library Journal Editor-in-Chief John N. Berry III wrote of Google's Library Project in his October 15 editorial ("Big Bucks for Fair Use") that it ,"brings the power of a segment of the private sector into an alliance with educators and librarians to free up access to information, no matter whether it is in copyright or not."
Speaking as a public librarian, I'll go with visionary capitalists over hand-wringing academics every time!
Gary Frost on November 30, 2005 11:11 PM:
If Google is grabbing away the library's proprietary access to content, the libraries are actively expanding content beyond the grasp of Google. Ironically research institutions are poised to transform digital resources into off-web archives. Clifford Lynch offered one
scenario today at Iowa.
Daniel Anderson on December 1, 2005 8:13 AM:
I think I'm of a mind with Dave and Jack here in that Siva's piece strikes me as a bit over-dark in its painting of google. No doubt google is shaped heavily by the net capital context in which it participates but many of the concerns in the piece seem to stem from larger currents that can't reasonably be tied to google. And there is a bit of academic-centrism and nostalgia to the language. The question Siva raises,
Is it really proper for one company -- no matter how egalitarian it claims to be -- to organize all the world's information? Who asked it to? Isn't that the job of universities, libraries, academics, and librarians? Have those institutions and people failed in their mission? Must they outsource everything?is rhetorical in part but also assumes, at least to my ear, that univerisities have some kind of entitlement to knowledge curation. Even if they did, they are probably too slow moving to undertake that mission on their own.
I do applaud the change in focus here, though, and maybe some of the discussion really relates to whether the lens is trained on the forest or the trees, as Ben's post points out. Actually, I think the crux(es) of many of the issues can be teased out from the library question and the adjustments of focus. Siva is right to point out that there is little committment to providing the kinds of resources needed to really enable libraries to lead or participate fully in the transformation needed here, but if one maintains that perspective (which it is hard to deny) then it becomes much harder to say such movements should be more in line with "librar[ies] librar[ies]." Underlying much of the concern is the (if not sad, at least real) truth that the relevance of the academy is shifting, probably diminishing. Blogging has served as a kind of lifeline recently for many on the academic ship which (at least in the context of technology transformations of the last several decaces) is foundering, but the general trend is less support, less privilege--I'm speaking from a humanities perspective.
So, these large areas of focus are worth exploring and the piece does well at bringing them to light. But students are already Furling and the sands have shifted; the call for rallying around the familiar library and knowledge curation model points to a hint of nostalgia and the difficulty with tagging google as the bad guy.
bowerbird on December 1, 2005 2:17 PM:
> Libraries should not be relinquishing their core duties
> to private corporations for the sake of expediency.
is there a better reason?
or, to put it another way,
when are the librarians
going to get started
on this huge job?
lead, follow, or
get out of the way.
but whatever you choose
to do, stop throwing rocks.