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

Elisabeth A. JonesThe Information School, University of Washington
Joseph W. JanesThe Information School, University of Washington


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.

Recommended 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
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