More fascinating and thoughtful debate about the Google Book Settlement in Mike Wilken’s comment thread.
I want to add just a bit more about it.
I think Ryan Shaw’s assessments are spot on in this discussion. We’re left perplexed by the Settlement and concerned about ambiguities and scenarios where these ambiguities (or defects) in the Settlement can lead to bad outcomes.
Mike asks where the animosity toward Google comes from, and I think that’s a harder issue. Ryan responded that people had “Google on a pedestal” and are disappointed that Google didn’t fight harder for the public interest. There may be something to that. I’ve followed the “Access to Knowledge” movement for some years, and Google has often been seen in a very positive light – “Look you can make a profit and dramatically widen information access and use”.
However, I think the scale of the book corpus, together with Google’s other information services make people rightfully concerned about Google, its future actions, and the power it wields. Even if the current leadership at Google is relatively enlightened, will it always be that way? Will the Google Books service and corpus someday be sold to Elsevier or NewsCorp? Would we still like the settlement then?
Some of the skepticism also comes from how this settlement changes Google’s profit and incentive models. The settlement makes Google a content provider, one that sells access to books. This is a very different position than its familiar role of providing search and discovery services. This issue links to the debate about Google’s “Knol” service, where Google aims to host user-generated articles in a manner similar to (or in competition with) the Wikipedia. Several have argued that this creates a conflict of interest, and people worry that if Google becomes a content provider it will face pressure to bias search results to its own content. So I think there are some legitimate worries about Google shifting from information discovery to becoming a publisher promoting its own content.
So, to me, it make sense to look at the settlement from the perspective “what could go wrong”. When people think about risk, they usually make an assessment about the probability of something going wrong times its impact. Given the high stakes involved, where the impact of a poor Settlement can be pretty large and dreadful, I think caution is very reasonable.