Adventures in Google’s Audacity
As we approach the September 15th status update which could signal the end of the road for the Google Books Settlement (especially now that the Authors Guild has filed a lawsuit against HathiTrust, which is the consortium of libraries that has received book scans from Google), it’s worth a step back to take a look at the broader picture that has emerged since we began this process almost three years ago.
At the outset of the Google Books adventure, Google’s scanning efforts were talked about in a whiz-bang, what-will-Google-think-of-next, tone of voice. After all, Google’s motto is “don’t be evil,” right? Those crazy kids in Mountain View would never do anything wrong or even . . . gasp . . . illegal!
But once the delays started and people had a chance to think about what Google was really doing, they began to ask questions and peel back some of the layers, attitudes began to change. People began to realize that Google, being a public corporation, might be motivated by money, and that every time that Google moves into another vertical market (like Book Search) it’s really a new source of consumer information that it can monetize and use to strengthen its dominant position. Seven years removed, the cross section of consumer advocates, librarians, authors and publishers that have publicly opposed the settlement is indicative of how far the Google Book Search project has fallen.
If you step back even further, the downfall of the Google Book Settlement is a microcosm of Google’s macro-scale problems. Less than a week after the upcoming GBS conference, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommitte on Antitrust will hold a hearing entitled The Power of Google: Serving Consumers or Threatening Competition?” Like the GBS, over the last three or four years, law enforcement officials no longer accept Google’s “trust us” mantra at face value. To wit: just a few weeks ago, Google agreed to fork over a whopping $500 million after an investigation by the Justice Department revealed that Google had been assisting (and profiting from) illegal online pharmacies who sold drugs to Americans. And the Attorneys General of Ohio, Texas, California, and New York, as well as the Federal Trade Commission, have opened investigations into Google’s business practices. Remember, it was the Department of Justice’s devastating brief and testimony at the Fairness Hearing that captivated the legal and literary communities’ attention and took what was once thought of as a fait accompli and turned into one of Google’s most public repudiations.
The greed, audacity, and arrogance that led Google to attempt to turn copyright, class action, and antitrust law on its head with the GBS are the same motivating factors that have led to the massive increase in scrutiny of the company as a whole. It’s too early to tell what the end result will be, but the one thing that is crystal clear from both the GBS and Google’s larger troubles is that the time for blindly trusting Google is long over.