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Google vs. Microsoft: Do you want Google to be your 'librarian'?

Google vs. Microsoft: Do you want Google to be your librarian?
Written by Donna Bogatin, Contributor

UPDATE:  "Few things in the past decade, other than the PATRIOT Act, have brought libraries and subsequent controversy into the mainstream media as much as the Google Book Search," Library Project, declares Jill E. Grogg, Electronic Resources Librarian, The University of Alabama Libraries and Beth Ashmore, Cataloging Librarian, Samford University, AND I agree!

The university librarians present an extensive review of "The Google Library Party,"  saying, among many other things, "Whatever the reason for participation, whatever the rationale and accompanying concerns, the simple fact remains that Google can offer digitization on a grand scale at a price libraries can afford."

But what is the real price of Google's generosity? Below I discuss another university take on Google's Library ambitions, "A risky gamble with Google."

OCTOBER 3, 2006:
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"Even before we started Google, we dreamed of making the incredible breadth of information that librarians so lovingly organize searchable online," said Larry Page, Google co-founder and president of Products, in announcing Google’s aim to digitally scan libraries’ book holdings two years ago.
In "Google Library’ to world: give us ‘all books in all languages,’ free of charge,” I discuss Google’s recent announcement of “a new Library Catalog Search feature in Google Book Search. 

Google continues to set its sights on the content of others in furtherance of its mission to “organize” all the world’s information. Google takes its mission literally; For Google, all the world’s information includes “all books in all languages.” Google aims to be the world’s single virtual depository for access to every single book in the world:

"Our ultimate goal is to work with publishers and libraries to create a comprehensive, searchable, virtual card catalog of all books in all languages that helps users discover new books and publishers discover new readers.”

Siva Vaidhyanathan, New York University assistant professor of culture and communication “worries” about Google’s library ambitions. In “A Risky Gamble with Google,” he warned last December:

Is it really proper for one company — no matter how egalitarian it claims to be — to organize all the world's information? Who asked it to? Isn't that the job of universities, libraries, academics, and librarians? Have those institutions and people failed in their mission? Must they outsource everything? Is anyone even watching to see if Google does the job properly?

Vaidhyanathan’s concerns are multiple. “privacy, privatization, and property”:

The dream of a perfect research machine seems almost within our reach….But, as we all know, we should be careful what we wish for. This particular project, I fear, opens up more problems than it solves. It will certainly fail to live up to its utopian promise. And it dangerously elevates Google's role and responsibility as the steward — with no accountability — of our information ecosystem. That's why I, an avowed open-source, open-access advocate, have serious reservations about it.

It pains me to declare this: Google's Library Project is a risky deal for libraries, researchers, academics, and the public in general… The fear that we are traveling down the road to Googlizing just about everything lurks behind this controversy. Google plays a peculiar and powerful role in our information ecosystem. It is a ubiquitous brand, used as a noun and a verb everywhere from adolescent conversations to scripts for Sex and the City...

Yet the core service of Google.com — its search engine — handles less than 50 percent of the Web-search business in the United States. While Google is clearly the leader, Yahoo also handles a significant chunk, Microsoft's MSN a smaller but still sizable portion. Microsoft — by virtue of being the default search engine built into the default Web browser available right out of the computer box — is gaining on both of them all over the world.Microsoft already controls most of the desktops in the world. It also controls an increasing number of operating systems for mobile data devices.

Thus many of the world's files are potentially indexible and searchable by Microsoft itself. And the company has ways of locking other firms out of essential services in the desktop environment. In addition, the chief advantage Google has had in the Web-search area is its algorithm, PageRankis no longer the only effective search engine on the market. Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw might use Google now, but there is no reason to believe she would next year.To preserve its status as the elite, venerated, and fast-moving technology company that does good as well as well, Google must therefore do two things. It must continue to convince the world that it is the anti-Microsoft. And it must find more things to index and expose to the world…

It must go new places and send its spiders crawling through unindexed corners of human knowledge…Privacy has been a problem for Google or, more precisely, Google users for some time. Scores of newspaper and magazine articles have considered the complications of finding one's personal history or long-lost sappy poems accessible via Google. With the launch of Google's Web-based e-mail service, Gmail, it became clear that the company was reading user mail for hints about how it might target ads. In addition, Google has potential access to all our search histories.

With Google Library, we have a whole new set of privacy concerns. Can we trust Google not to turn over individual reading records of patrons to the FBI or local law-enforcement officials? There is nothing in Google's privacy policy that promises it will resist such abusive practices. In fact, its policy declares that it will give law-enforcement investigators information to "satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or enforceable governmental request." Even a stronger privacy pledge from the company would be hard to take seriously. Plenty of other companies, like airlines, have violated their own privacy policies…

The process of privatization is particularly troubling. Of course we should not pretend that libraries operate outside market forces or do not depend on outsourcing many of their functions. But we must recognize that some of the thorniest problems facing libraries today — paying for and maintaining commercial electronic databases and cataloging services — are a direct result of rapid privatization and onerous contract terms. There are too many devils in too many details

The long-term risk of privatization is simple: Companies change and fail. Libraries and universities last. Should we entrust our heritage and collective knowledge to a business that has been around for less time than Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston were together? A hundred years from now, Google may well not exist. Much to the dismay of Ohio State University's football fans, the University of Michigan will. For that reason alone, it's imperative that stable public institutions take the lead in such an ambitious project…

What if stockholders decide that Google Library is a money loser or too much of a copyright-infringement liability? What if they decide that the infrastructure costs of keeping all those files on all those servers do not justify the expense? What then? Will the proprietary formats through which Google displays its files survive the company's demise? Will they survive other technological changes?

Like all companies, Google protects its proprietary formats and technologies. All software companies use a matrix of nondisclosure contracts, trade secrets, copyrights, and patents to restrict competition and limit public oversight. Like Google's search processes and algorithms, the content of the Print Project is protected by digital-rights-management technologies and not open to public scrutiny. So Google is heavily invested in a strong — perhaps too strong — regime of property rights.Yet the company has also set itself up as the champion of the public interest in matters of intellectual property and Internet freedom…

Beware any corporation that pretends to speak for the public interest. That's usually a contingent pledge based on convenience and temporary market conditions. Microsoft used to seem like it was on the public-interest side of copyright battles in the 1990s when it fought Apple's attempts to monopolize the graphical user interface. Many times we have learned the hard way that companies shift their public-policy orientations as their market status changes.

The most serious problem Google Library creates concerns one aspect of intellectual property — copyright. This plan injects more uncertainty and panic into a system that is already out of equilibrium. Since the rise of digital media and networks, content owners have been scrambling to install radical legal and technological controls over content and the machines that play and distribute that content. Meanwhile, users have been inventing and discovering powerful new ways to create, revise, and distribute content — often other people's content. As a result, we now have an absurd copyright system. Almost nothing stops bad actors (like DVD pirates) from infringing copyrights for profit. Yet the system plays havoc with innocent copyright users like librarians, researchers, students, and computer programmers. Much about copyright in the digital age is up for grabs. After a series of high-profile cases, it's still not clear whether the big copyright owners (who tend to win such cases) will triumph in the long run and quash the efforts of millions of people to use their own culture as they see fit. Google's plan to copy books further destabilizes the system, poking at the very core of copyright.

ALSO:  Why Google will never pay for content and Google CEO gets feisty over Microsoft monopoly and Google (will be) a monopoly and Google's Ten Commandments 
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