Google makes a quick U-turn on Books privacy amid FTC inquiry

A mere three days after explaining to the Federal Trade Commission in an open letter (PDF available here) that it could not draft a complete privacy policy for its Google Books site since the services such a policy would protect have yet to be invented, Google issued its first privacy policy update specifically for Google books.

But the policy addendum itself actually questions its own need to exist. "Google Books operates a lot like Web Search and other basic Google web services, so there are relatively few privacy practices that are unique to the Google Books product," reads the actual text of the policy statement.

The privacy issue at hand with regard to Google Books deals with whether records of consumers' reading habits can or will be made available to anyone else besides Google, even on an automated level. This is important because Google's main business is advertising. At some level, users should expect that promotional content pertaining to something related to what the user is reading (or appears to be reading, or to a phrase borrowed from something on screen) will be used to summon a contextually relevant ad, on behalf of Google's advertising clients.


What's more, the proposed settlement between Google and representatives of major publishers would enable them to receive some portion of the fees collected from Google Books-related services including e-book sales, as a substitute for outright royalties. Those publishers will not know how much to expect, or to bill for, unless it knows how many readers its titles -- even those that were officially out of print just months earlier -- will generate. So some information will need to be shared at some point.

The very sharing of that information may be illegal in many countries.

In this morning's revelation of the Google Books privacy policy -- which Google maintains is still under construction -- we learn that the company may share the titles of e-books published through its system with credit card companies, and will probably do so by default. However, customers may "opt out" of this communication by specifically instructing Google not to share the titles of purchased material with financial institutions -- only the amount, and perhaps quantity. Google Accounts will be necessary for individuals to purchase titles, but not to view books scanned into the system -- an especially important requirement for countries that mandate that individuals may use public libraries, and the public computers housed within them, without registration.

The posting of the Google Books policy comes mere hours after its global privacy counsel, Jane Horvath, received a letter from the director of the FTC's Consumer Protection Bureau, David Vladeck (PDF available here), urging her company to come forth with its policy on how it plans to use information collected from Google Books users in conjunction with its behavioral advertising system.

"As we have discussed, we recognize that Google Books offers consumers access to numerous publications that currently are difficult to obtain," Vladeck wrote. "At the same time, however, we have concerns about Google gaining access to vast amounts of consumer data regarding the books consumers search for, purchase, and read. Given these concerns, we asked that, to the extent Google will use consumer data collected through Google Books to deliver targeted advertising, Google publicly commit to complying with the FTC's self-regulatory principles for online behavioral advertising. Additionally, we requested that Google disclose the nature and extent of any secondary uses, outside of behavioral advertising, of data collected through Google Books."

Horvath stated in her letter that it's not Google's current intention to use behavioral advertising in conjunction with Google Books, but should it plan to do so in the future, it will adhere to the industry standard principle of "self-regulation."

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