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The world's libraries are moving online, and Google is doing much of the work. The company has scanned 7 million books and counting. The prospect of a virtual super library excites many people and also raises concerns - that as books go digital, the act of reading may become less private. NPR's Martin Kaste reports.
MARTIN KASTE: Novelist Jonathan Lethem says books should be intimate. He thinks back to when he was young, when he was discovering literature.
Mr. JONATHAN LETHEM (Novelist): When I was on this very private, very eccentric, intense journey as a younger person, it was crucial that it be a solitary practice.
KASTE: Lethem wonders whether future readers will enjoy the same kind of solitude. With digital books, he says, readers will be able to discover new kinds of literature, but they may also be constantly mindful of the fact that their reading choices can be recorded. The Google Books project, especially, causes him mixed emotions.
Mr. LETHEM: Google is trying something extraordinary, and they're to be congratulated and encouraged in every possible way to do this extraordinary thing. But this is the moment to take a look.
KASTE: Lethem and a handful of other authors have signed on to an effort challenging Google to guarantee that readers of its virtual library will have as much privacy as they had in traditional libraries.
One of the organizers of this effort is the digital civil liberties group called the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Legal director Cindy Cohn says a system like Google Books can track your reading very closely.
Ms. CINDY COHN (Electronic Frontier Foundation): They know what books you search for, what books you might browse through; they know how long you spend on each page.
KASTE: In other words, the same kind of information that they know about your Web searches. But books should be different, Cohn says. She wants Google to throw away, as quickly as possible, all the data left behind by book readers. Otherwise, she says, Google Books could become a one-stop shop for anyone trying to dig into your readying habits.
Daphne Keller is familiar with those nightmare scenarios.
Ms. DAPHNE KELLER (Attorney): There's this horrific example of, like, what if your insurance company finds out about the diseases you're researching, which is just not going to happen.
KASTE: Keller is a lawyer for Google.
Ms. COHN: I just think that books and the future of reading is too important to be left to a just-trust-us version of privacy.
KASTE: Cohn says now is the time for them to pressure Google, because the company is trying to get court approval for a complicated copyright settlement with publishers and authors. The EFF and the ACLU of Northern California are threatening to go to the judge overseeing the settlement and ask that legally binding privacy guarantees be included.
Google lawyer Daphne Keller says while the company believes in protecting customers' privacy, it does not think this settlement is the place to make that kind of commitment.
Ms. KELLER: It would be weird to put it in the agreement. You know, certainly not the kind of thing that would generally come up in the settlement of a copyright conflict.
KASTE: But Google needs this settlement. Without it, it may not have the right to post millions of the books that it's already scanned. It's a sensitive moment for the company, and privacy groups know that this is a rare chance to build legally binding reader protections into what could someday become the world's library.
Martin Kaste, NPR News.