I wonder if Google will ever use the gaping monster mouth with waggling tongue as one of its ever-changing logos? The image above was created by Asuf Hanuka for a magazine article about the implications of Google’s ambitious book scanning project. Google, of course, prefers to think of itself as forward-thinking, benevolent, altruistic. The company’s slogan is “Don’t be evil.” This attitude, according to the article in California Lawyer, is what separates Google from the easy to hate Goliath of the 90’s, Microsoft.
Google fervently believes in its mission to digitize books. Trust us, it says, our digital library will benefit everyone. And, at first, everyone agreed. The book scanning project began back in 2002 and has been humming along nicely since, digitizing 12 million books and counting. We’re on the way to having all of humanity’s knowledge at our fingertips, immortalized in bits and bytes. How could that be bad?
Well, for starters, Google doesn’t run the public library down the street. Books, as repositories of knowledge, have a hallowed position in society. You don’t burn books, and you’d feel guilty even chucking a used one in the recycling bin. You buy books and support authors, but you also check them out for free at libraries. Few other things in society have that cachet. You don’t see a “library” of snowman nic-nacs for people to borrow, or a “library” of used kitchen utensils. Books are special. Underlying books is the assumption that knowledge is egalitarian, theoretically the sacred right of everyone.
So, what happens if a private entity, a corporation, now has exclusive control over all the world’s digitized books? Google says they won’t be evil, but can we stake the future of digital books on a slogan and good intentions? I grant that Google might not actually have nefarious intentions… now. But what happens 25 years from now, when the founders and current CEO step down?
I equate trusting Google with trusting a benevolent dictator. Sure, Julius Caesar was good, but not so much that Nero guy. What happens if Google’s revenues falter? What happens if some of the digitized books are somehow offensive to Google’s mission? Do those books disappear? Do charges and tiers of service start appearing?
We don’t know. And that presents a potentially huge problem. After the initial euphoric enthusiasm for Google’s book scanning project, backlash occurred. The CLL article goes into more detail, but in a nutshell legal concerns over copyright violations and anti-trust regulations have surfaced. Google settled once, was sued, and settled again. Some of Google’s detractors formed the Open Book Alliance, and they weren’t entirely happy with the second settlement either. This February, the Justice Department signaled that it agreed, and that Google’s book scanning project could overlap with its search business, fostering a monopoly.
The Open Book Alliance proposed a solution that I totally support. Instead of a corporate, private digital library, let’s emulate our current open, free, unbiased public libraries. Let’s establish a non-profit to lead the charge in book scanning, or let’s have the government do it. The future of books is digital, but we shouldn’t ditch models that have worked in the past. And public libraries work.