Civil Rights Activists Champion Google Book Deal

A proposed settlement allowing Google to digitize millions of books will have huge benefits for minority populations and their access to valuable information, a group of civil rights leaders and educators said Wednesday.

The Google book settlement, scheduled to be reviewed in an Oct. 7 court hearing, would allow Google to scan and make available scores of books, including millions of out-of-print titles. The digitized books will give minorities and poor people new access to titles that were formerly only available at large university libraries, supporters of the deal said during a forum at the Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C.

"The idea that a student in Boston at a very exclusive private school can read the same books that a student somewhere in an underfunded, urban public school, that they can have the same access to the same materials is actually just amazing," said Professor Rhea Ballard-Thrower, law librarian at the Howard law school. "Books are the great equalizer."

Among those speaking in favor of the digital books settlement negotiated between Google and book authors and publishers were officials with the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the National Federation of the Blind.

"This project is part of a larger effort to democratize knowledge," Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said during a forum on the book settlement, hosted by the Howard law school. "To me, this project is so crucial because it helps to level the playing field at the most fundamental intersection of rights, knowledge and advocacy."

The speakers at the Howard event urged Denny Chin of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York to approve the deal, despite several objections to the settlement, announced last October.

In early July, the U.S. Department of Justice said it was investigating the settlement and Google's Book Search product for possible antitrust violations. Several groups have complained that the settlement could give Google power to monetize so-called orphaned works, books still under copyright protection but for which no one claims ownership.

Last week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation urged its members to contact Google and demand that privacy protections are included in its Book Search project. Google must ensure against government snooping into the book records and should track book records for less than 30 days, the EFF said.

Earlier this week, the Center for Democracy and Technology, a digital rights group that receives some funding from Google, called for Chin to require several conditions as part of the settlement, including privacy safeguards.

"Significant work remains to address that gap and ensure that historical reader privacy protections are not lost as library functions are centralized and moved online," CDT said in a paper released Monday. "At a minimum, before the settlement is approved, Google should issue a set of privacy commitments that explains both its general approach to protecting reader privacy and its process for addressing privacy in greater detail as Google Book Search moves forward."

The court should also monitor the implementation of privacy safeguards as part of an ongoing supervision of the settlement, CDT added.

Henderson and Brent Wilkes, national executive director for the League of United Latin American Citizens, raised privacy concerns at the Howard forum, although both gave enthusiastic support to the settlement. Google must take steps to ensure that the U.S. government cannot track what books people read or purchase, Wilkes said.

Google will make privacy a top priority as it develops its Book Search product, said David Drummond, the company's senior vice president for corporate development and chief legal officer. The book settlement may not be perfect, he said, but is the result of three years of negotiation and compromise.

Other participants at the forum called on Google to make sure minorities and other people have access to computers and broadband so that they can read the online books.

Despite several concerns about the settlement, the book project will bring "remarkable" access to blind people, said Charles Brown, advisor to the president of the National Federation of the Blind. People with sight impairments will be able to use text-to-voice and other technology to gain access to millions of new books, he said.

"As long-time advocates of equal opportunity for the blind, we so often tend to view progress as slow, gradual and incremental," Brown said. "Then again, once in a while something big is so suddenly achieved to be truly revolutionary in scope. The Google book project surely fits in this rare category."

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