In preping for the big day on Friday, when the UC Berkeley ISchool will host a conference on the Google Books Settlement (GBS), I’ve been doing some poking around to get a sense of reactions from researchers.

Matt Wilkens, a computationally inclined humanist recently wrote a a good argument for supporting the settlement. Although thought provoking, I still can’t agree with the GBS without some key changes. In my mind, (echoed in many places) the dangers of a entrenching Google as a monopoly in this space far outweigh the benefits offered by the settlement.

There are other important objections with regard to the privacy issues and user data capture that will be required under the access and use restrictions. Remember this is a company that already monitors a tremendous amount of user data (some 88% of all web traffic! see: http://knowprivacy.org/), and is moving toward “behavioral advertising”.

What’s bad about this for scholars? I think there can be a “chilling effect” with the privacy issues. Google does not have the same values found in your university library, and will exploit data about your use of their corpus. They can also remove works with no notice or recourse, again, not like a university library.

All of these objections have been made by many others (more eloquently than here).

The Research Corpus

What has somewhat less attention is the “non-consumptive” use of the so-called “research corpus”. The GBS would make the scanned book corpus available to qualified researchers for “non-consumptive” uses (I read this as uses that don’t primarily require a human to read the books). Nobody will know how they will play out. I think for researchers on the computational side, it’ll be a huge boon, since they’ll have a big data set to use to test new algorithms.

However, humanities scholars are on the more “applied” side of this. They’re more likely to want to use text-mining techniques to better understand a collection. Where I see a problem is that they will not have clear permissions to share their understandings, especially as a new service (say one with enhanced, discipline-specific metadata over a portion of the corpus). Because that service may “compete with Google” or other “Rightsholders”. I really think that restriction matters.

The settlement also places restrictions on data extracted (through mining and other means) from copyrighted works. In the settlement on Page 82, “Rightsholders” can also require researchers to strike all data extracted from a given book. I see this as a major problem because it weakens the public domain status of facts/ideas. Another more down-stream worry lies in future services Google may offer on the corpus. If Google launches a Wolfram|Alpha like service on this corpus, they will also likely act like Wolfram|Alpha and claim ownership of mined “facts”.

None of this is good for researchers in the long term. Now, I’m not saying this has to be a totally “open” resource (it can’t because of the copyright status of many of the books). All I’m saying is that we should be REALLY concerned. We should push for some additional protections.

On that note, here’s a nice idea:
http://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2009/06/should-google-have-s