Is Google gaining a monopoly on the world's information?
Why are we asking this now?
It is the nagging fear that has just been given voice in a Manhattan courtroom. Dozens of Google's opponents lined up to damn the internet pioneer as monopolistic, rapacious, and contemptuous of laws that protect copyright and protect consumers from dominant corporations.
Google's response could be summed up as: "Who? Us?"
The occasion was a hearing yesterday into the company's ground-breaking legal settlement with the publishing industry, which has been suing over Google's eight-year-old project to digitise all the world's books. That settlement needs to be rubber-stamped by a judge, and while the major publishing houses may be happy with the deal, scores of other groups are not.
And neither is the US government.
What exactly is Google books?
It is a vision even crazier than the one that created Google in 1996. Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, students at Stanford University in California, originally came up with a way to download and search the entire worldwide web.
Google Books is a scheme to scan and search entire libraries. Vast libraries, such as the Bodleian in Oxford (an early enthusiast) and those of Ivy League institutions including Columbia and Harvard in the US.
The goal is to digitise every book ever printed, and it has already passed the 10 million mark. Books that have been out of print for decades, accessible only in a handful of libraries or on the shelves of second-hand book stores, are suddenly available once more.
Doesn't that sound like a great idea?
It is all part of Google's stated mission "to organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful", a perfectly laudable mission except that it comes with an unspoken paranthesis: "to organise the world's information (and make a profit when people access it)".
Many of the world's biggest libraries were already digitising the volumes on their shelves before Google started its secret books project in 2002. The vast resources of the internet company sped up the process, but it also triggered alarm, particularly regarding books which were out of print but not yet out of copyright.
Google makes money by selling adverts alongside book search queries, like it does with web search queries, and it has also created an online bookstore for downloading whole books. Authors were furious to discover a corporation was scanning their books without asking them first, and publishers sued, fearful that Google would profit from works to which they had rights.
What did Google and the industry agree?
The US deal, announced in October 2008, settled suits brought by the Authors Guild, the Association of American Publishers and individual companies including Simon & Schuster and Penguin. It creates a Book Rights Registry, which will funnel payments to the people who hold the copyright, some of whom might be difficult to track down if a book has been out of print for decades. Users will now be able to view up to 20 per cent of each of these works for free, or buy a digital copy.
Libraries will be able to buy access, meaning even local libraries will be able to have access to millions of books. Most in-print books will be excluded, and Google's search will throw up only tiny snippets of these, unless authors and publishers specifically agree to a different arrangement.
Dozens of individuals, companies and lobby groups have put in objections to the settlement, and 28 were given permission to address the court yesterday. Opponents range from Japanese authors to French publishers. DC Comics, home of Batman, has raised its voice against. Google's arch-rivals Microsoft and Yahoo are also against the deal; Microsoft's lawyer, Tom Rubin, told Judge Denny Chin that the settlement was "structured to solidify Google's dominance".
Amazon, which shows snippets of books to people browsing its online store and which says it asked permission before scanning, is part of a lobby group called the Open Book Alliance, which said a positive ruling on the settlement would be a "formal blessing to fix prices, restrain competition and retard technological advancement".
The US government's Justice department, which has a responsibility for stamping out monopoly practices, expressed similar fears, saying the deal effectively grants Google a monopoly over out-of-print books whose authors cannot be found.
Are there more than just business concerns?
Absolutely. Another vocal opponent is the Electronic Frontier Foundation, one the internet's most outspoken privacy advocates, which is nervous about the growth of electronic books. Digital book providers have the potential to track, aggregate, analyse, and disclose reader activity to an extent far beyond anything possible with physical books, it warns.
Google Books users access books stored on a server, so Google will maintain records of every book purchased over the lifetime of the reader. The EEF says we should be doubly wary of Google since it is also collecting data on us elsewhere, through records of our searches and via email and social networking services such as Gmail and the new Google Buzz.
"Digital book providers can collect data on what books you search for, what books you browse, what pages you view, and for how long – and they can keep that data for a very long time," the foundation says. "Most of this tracking is something bookstores and libraries could never do, short of hiring an agent to follow patrons around the stacks and then into their homes."
Is Google Books an international service?
Supporters of the US settlement hope that, if approved, it will become a model for Google Books elsewhere in the world, where the service is still only at a nascent stage. The international roll-out is not without obstacles for Google, however. In China, it apologised last month to authors angry that their works had been digitised without permission.
And in France, a Paris court ordered Google to pay more than €300,000 in fines, plus €10,000 more per day, for putting book extracts online without permission. It says it will appeal.
Have attitudes to Google started changing?
The company still lives by its slogan of "Don't be evil", but larger numbers of people and more legal systems appear to be questioning whether Google has a broad enough definition of evil.
Campaigners have taken to the streets in Germany to protest how long it holds search data on individuals; newspapers, led by the mogul Rupert Murdoch, are challenging Google News' use of snippets of their content; the US Justice department is examining the company's long dominance of the online advertising market; and Google is even having trouble extending its "street view" maps service in Continental Europe because of local objections to having their homes and storefronts photographed.
Judge Chin says it will take him time to rule on his corner of the great Google debate, but the future of the Google Books settlement is not the only area where the company is facing challenges to its growing power over the world's information.
Is Google assembling too much power?
* Google Books will probably have a monopoly over titles that are hard to find
* The company doesn't even feel the need to ask authors before scanning their books
* There are concerns that the company already knows too much about our internet habits
* Google Books is simply part of its mission to make information very widely accessible
* The company is committed to sharing profits with authors and publishers
* Google is proud of a corporate culture that responds to privacy concerns