Google’s Do-Gooder Myth

Since it began its so-called “secret books project” in 2002, Google has scanned 20 million books from university libraries, usually displaying portions of each book for free, and making them fully-searchable. For that effort, it has spent much of the past decade embroiled in litigation with publishers and authors who contend the company is violating copyright law. Well, late this week, news came that Google finally resolved one of the major lawsuits against it, agreeing to allow publishers the right to withdraw their books from Google’s digital library after they had been scanned, and to display no more than 20% of each book online. (A more contentious class-action suit filed by authors is still ongoing.)

Google’s settlement represents a major concession. Earlier this summer, the company maintained that it was well within its “fair-use” rights to scan and display portions of any book it pleased. Undergirding the legalese was a high-minded conception of the project. “Google Books was born of the realization that much of the store of human knowledge lies in books on library shelves where it is very difficult to find,” the company wrote in a July legal memorandum. “Books exist to be read. Google Books exists to help readers find those books.”

On its surface, Google’s goal can seem admirable: Not only is it opening up a whole realm of information to people without access to it, but it might actually be helping authors and publishers publicize their books. What it seems blind to, of course, is the fact that readers often pick and choose what they want from Google’s free books without ever buying them. More broadly, the effort is emblematic of Google’s belief that it is something of a passive vehicle for knowledge; any effort to restrict its quest to make information as transparent as possible is inherently un-democratic. But Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” motto/worldview, which seems directed not so much inward, but at all the malevolent luddites impeding its plans, is problematic in its own right.

Evgeny Morozov, in a 2011 New Republic piece, argued that in some respect, Google’s book scanning is just a continuation of existing political and technological trends.

The growing penetration of market solutions into sectors that were traditionally managed by public institutions—from fighting wars to managing prisons and from schooling to health care—has made Google’s forays into digitizing books appear quite normal, set against the dismal state of public libraries and the continued sell-out of higher education to the highest corporate bidder.

Yet, while Morozov doesn’t explicitly condemn the book scanning project, he hints at its potentially dangerous utopianism.

Thee conquest of omne scibile—“everything knowable”—has been a cornerstone of many utopian projects, from Edward Bellamy’s passionate call for accessible and resourceful libraries in Looking Backward to H.G. Wells’s idea of the “World Brain,” which he described as “a new world organ for the collection, indexing, summarizing, and release of knowledge.”

Google’s belief in the inherent nobility–and historical inevitability–of its mission has rendered it blind to the possibility that by monopolizing information it might eventually accomplish something completely undemocratic. In holding the keys to the world’s digital library–without paying for its rights–it could initiate a race to the bottom in which it lures readers to its website by offering that library up for free or very low cost. Indeed, as Robert Darnton has “>pointed out, Google’s books database doesn’t really resemble a public library at all. Which helps explain why in 2011, a federal judge “>rejected an earlier settlement that would have allowed Google to freely scan and publish every book in the world, on the grounds that it had created a monopoly for itself.

Google wants to treat all human knowledge as mere information, ripe for the sharing, without worrying much about who’s producing it or whether to compensate them adequately. That impulse, Morozov argues, stems from Google’s inability to view itself as anything but a public good: “They have a hard time imagining an outside world where Google is seen as just another greedy corporation that might have incentives to behave unethically.” Thursday’s settlement may be the start of a corrective process by which they begin to live up to their own ideals.

Simon van Zuylen-Wood

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer for Philadelphia Magazine.