Article examines privacy, digital libraries

In a new article, PhD candidate Elisabeth Jones and associate professor Joe Janes look at reader privacy in the age of digital book collections like Google Book. Jones and Janes' analysis of the topic is a response to reasonable concerns about whether Google, with its well-documented struggles with user privacy issues, can rise to the challenges surrounding intellectual freedom in the way public libraries have -- namely with a well-developed set of standards, norms and laws.

"Anonymity in a World of Digital Books: Google Books, Privacy, and the Freedom to Read" specifically asks:

(1) How do the norms of information flow within Google Books differ from those within the public library context?

(2) What moral or political factors are implicated in these changes in norms?

(3) How might these changes support or detract from the values, goals,and ends wrapped up in the provision of free, publicly accessible books, as established in public libraries?

Building upon this analysis, the authors offer recommendations for the protection of reader privacy in Google Books and other similar initiatives.

The article is available for free download to registered users or at any institution with a site license. You can find it at:

The citation:

Jones, Elisabeth A. and Janes, Joseph W. (2010) "Anonymity in a World of Digital Books: Google Books, Privacy, and the Freedom to Read," Policy & Internet: Vol. 2 : Iss. 4, Article 3.

DOI: 10.2202/1944-2866.1072

The abstract, supplied by the publisher:

With its Books project, Google has made an unprecedented effort to aggregate a comprehensive public-access collection of the world's books. If successful, Google's collection would become the world's largest and most broadly accessible public book collection -- indeed, project leaders have frequently spoken of their desire to create a "universal library" (Toobin 2007). Still, the Google "library" would differ from established contexts for the provision of free, public access to reading materials -- like public libraries -- along several policy-related dimensions, of which perhaps the most glaring is its treatment of reader privacy. This paper teases out the specific differences in reader privacy protections between the American public library and Google Books, and what those differences might mean for the values and goals that such contexts have historically embodied. Our analysis is structured by Helen Nissenbaum's "contextual integrity decision heuristic" (2009), which focuses on revealing changes in informational norms and transmission principles between prevailing and novel settings and practices. Based on this analysis, we recommend a two-pronged approach to alleviating the threats to reader privacy posed by Google Books: both data policy modifications within Google itself and inscription of privacy protections for online reading into federal or international law.