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Does Google threaten the privacy of your reading habits?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 14, 2009 - Privacy advocates are trying to force Google to agree to tough privacy protections that would safeguard the list of books that people read from the future Google online library. They want the protections written into a pending court settlement.

Google has scanned millions of books into digital form since it began the books project in 2003. Authors and publishers sued for copyright infringement in 2005, and Google reached a tentative settlement of the case in 2007. Critics of the settlement have until Sept. 4 to file their comments with the court.

Privacy critics, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU of Northern California, want the settlement to include binding promises by Google to destroy the records of people's reading habits after 30 days. They argue that the intimacy and individuality of a person's reading habits could be damaged if readers are afraid about the digital trails they are leaving behind.

Google says it already cares for the privacy of data, only turning over information under subpoena or in life-threatening police situations. Google's lawyers say it would be strange to include these privacy provisions in a settlement with authors and publishers.

Privacy advocates aren't the only critics of the Google deal. Freelancers have recently raised questions, arguing that Google will have a monopoly over "orphan" books, where the authors cannot be found.

One of the big opponents of the Google settlement is Microsoft, which gave up on its book-scanning venture. The book settlement would entrench Google's dominance of Microsoft online.

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. Previously, he worked for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for 34 years, serving as assistant Washington Bureau Chief and deputy editorial editor. He covered the U.S. Supreme Court while in Washington. He is a graduate of Kirkwood High School, Stanford University and Washington University Law School. He is a member of the Missouri Bar.