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A new Google order

Published: May 6, 2009
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Source: Daily Emerald - Dan Lawton

The best books ... are those that tell you what you know already.

- George Orwell

If you Google the word "Google," you get 2,650,000,000 results. If you Google "Google, monopoly," 3,210,000 items are returned. If you Google "Google, Orwellian nightmare, digital apocalypse, corporate intellectual engineering," the harvest is much more limited; only 1,280 matches appear.

These results, the product of complicated algorithms, exist for one reason: Google allows them to. The moment it decides this information is either irrelevant or unsavory, it can easily be buried deep into the black hole of cyberspace where no one - not even an errant bottom-feeder - can find it.

Of course, the folks at Google don't do this; it's not their business plan. What they want, at the moment, is to acquire more information, not bury it. But imagine a future in which all information is stored, displayed, filtered and produced by one source: Google. Imagine a future in which print books cease to exist - it's likely on the horizon - and every piece of literature from Plato's "The Republic" to your calculus textbook exists in a digital format with one monolithic gatekeeper. Imagine typing in a search query for Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" and getting back a list of books about baking turkeys; the novel is gone, vanished.

Yes, I am being sensational. True, there is little evidence Google has such pernicious motives, but one part of this doomsday scenario is not only feasible, it's happening now. A $125-million settlement of a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of the copyright holders of millions of books may provide Google exclusive digital rights to most of the books in the world.

The lawsuit is a result of Google's Book Search Project, for which the company has scanned and digitized more than 7 million books in the last five years. Google has been digitizing and making available for download all books not under U.S. copyright law. It also scans and shows snippets - up to 20 percent - of copyrighted books, under the protection of the Fair Use doctrine. Google's intention, according to its mission statement, is to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." However, being able to publish snippets of books in search results also creates revenue, which is why a consortium of authors and publishers sued Google in 2005 demanding a share of the profits.

What happened next was a bit of legal maneuvering so sly it would have blown Perry Mason's mind.

When Google sat down at the negotiating table with publishers, it was ready and willing to pony up a bundle of cash to keep its digital library growing. However, what it wanted in return was an explicit license to digitize and sell "orphan books," which are out-of-print copyrighted works with no findable heir or owner. By some estimates, these books make up about 70 percent of books in print, and there's no precedent for whom their digital rights should belong to.

By wresting control of orphan books into perpetuity, Google essentially turned the concept of a class-action lawsuit inside out. In addition, it inserted a "most favored nation" clause in the settlement, which would prevent publishers from offering better terms on non-orphan books to Google's future competitors.

The ramifications are chilling. Brewster Kahle, founder of the non-profit Internet library, said future libraries may be nothing more than "subscribers to a few monopoly corporations' databases." Even more worrisome will be Google's ability to alter the availability and popularity of literature via its search rank. If Google doesn't like a book, it will be able to effectively purge it by making it unsearchable. The cherry on top is that Google will have a comprehensive database of the reading lists of all Americans that will be searchable by any topic. Wow, I wonder who might be interested in that?

The only good news is that the settlement has yet to be approved, and a public comment period during which objections can be heard has just been extended. Consumer groups, publishers and even Microsoft have stated their opposition to the settlement. More importantly, it appears the Department of Justice is considering filing an anti-trust grievance against Google.

It should.

There has been much speculation on how the Obama administration would deal with Google - who tussled with the Bush DOJ on numerous occasions - as Google's chief executive Eric Schmidt was previously an informal technology advisor to the president. The administration needs to quell any speculation of favorable treatment by intervening now.

America's most powerful corporation having a virtual monopoly on digital books isn't just bad news; it's cataclysmic. If anyone should be conscious of the awesome power of the world's biggest search engine, it's President Obama. His name returns 103 million results.

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