United States District Judge Denny Chin’s decision [PDF] denying final approval of the Google Books Settlement included an interesting discussion of privacy issues that were raised by the proposed settlement agreement [PDF].  The decision may draw attention to the emerging privacy issues surrounding reading on computers and other Internet-enabled devices, such as popular e-Readers.

The Google Books settlement agreement would have resolved a copyright suit filed against Google by authors and publishers, parts of whose books Google had made available through its search engine without first securing copyright permission.  Under the agreement, Google would, among other things, have been permitted to (1) continue to digitize books, (2) sell subscriptions to an electronic books database, (3) sell online access to individual books, and (4) sell advertising on pages from books.  

A number of consumer groups — including Consumer Watchdog and EPIC — had filed briefs in opposition to the settlement arguing that allowing Google to engage in these activities raised privacy concerns.  Consumer Watchdog contended that the agreement would give Google “the ability to collect nearly unlimited data about the activities of users of its Book Search and other programs, including users’ search queries, the identity of books a particular user reads, how long that reader spends on each book, and even what particular pages were read.”  The court acknowledged that the privacy concerns about Google Books “are real.”  However, Judge Chin noted that the agreement contained privacy protections for the authors and publishers that comprised the class.  Judge Chin did not focus on the privacy interests that Consumer Watchdog and others had raised with respect to users of Google Books. 

A feature by National Public Radio published last December noted that while Google’s Book service “appears to save only the last five pages viewed to help the reader keep his place . . . [it] actually stores more pages than that behind the scenes for what it calls “security monitoring” — to prevent the “abusive sharing” of books.”  The article stated that “a Google representative [had reported that] . . . page views may be stored with a user’s account for ‘several weeks’ before being erased.”  It will be interesting to see whether the issue of readers’ privacy in the digital age becomes more prominent in the wake of Judge Chin’s opinion.

The privacy concerns discussed in connection with the Google Books Settlement are particularly timely given the explosive growth of e-Readers, which has led some to speculate that providers with access to readers’ activities may seek to monitor those activities for advertising purposes.