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Google Print, or knowledge is power

By Rüdiger Wischenbart

This is one of those convoluted issues where one group wants to make the world a better place, challenged by others with undoubtedly convincing arguments.

It involves no less than the dream of all librarians since the creation of the Alexandria repository in Ancient Egypt, i.e. of accumulating all knowledge available in the world and arranging it in a convenient system to make it accessible at any time - "at any time" today meaning at the click of a mouse, without delay and from anywhere in the world.

Google, the California-based Internet search engine whose immodest mission is "to organize the world’s information", wants to make this a reality, extending its scope far beyond the realms of the Internet. In addition to websites, its Google Print project will aim to provide direct online access to books and entire libraries.

With around 200 million dollars from last year’s stock market flotation at its disposal, the company is employing a bold, twin-pronged strategy. On the one hand, it will negotiate the right to scan new publications and make them available to Internet users via search functions. The incentive for publishers is the sales boost these searches will provide – free of charge. Google’s system allows users to view between 20% and 100% of book contents – although without the option (for copyright reasons) of printing them out.

Meanwhile, Google has enlisted a handful of English-language libraries, including the New York Public Library, Harvard University, Stanford and the Bodleian in Oxford, to allow the complete digitisation of a total of 15 million (largely older) books from their collections.

A hint of this vision, although essentially still in test-tube form, can already be gleaned from A9, the experimental platform of Google’s rival and potential partner, online book retailer Amazon. Linking Google’s technology with Amazon’s "Search Inside the Book" function, this already promising search engine shows how extensive but detailed searches can be performed on books, images and websites via a – albeit still rather small and English-language-only – catalogue.

Now Google is starting to expand its Print project to incorporate Europe and its various languages. It is promoting its plans at all major book fairs and contacting publishers. But rather than receiving widespread approval, the utopia of knowledge for all has raised a widespread outcry, with its starting point in France.

Absurd? Not entirely.

The underlying principles are straightforward enough. Anyone who, like Google, intends to "organize the world’s knowledge" will accumulate considerable power in an information society. The notion that a single machine, a company or an algorithm is able to organise all freely available knowledge in a position of overwhelming dominance is hard to reconcile with the principles of cultural diversity.

Since launching his campaign a few months ago, Jean-Noël Jeanneney, President of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, has been lobbying colleagues and politicians for a rival European project. Nineteen national libraries across the continent, including those in Germany and Austria, have followed the appeal to create a European digital library to compete with the "American" Google project.

The calls were echoed at the highest political level two weeks ago in the extremely apt setting of Paris’s Comédie Française, where the European Commission pledged an initial package of funds to provide a rapid and resolute response under the banner of cultural diversity – in the form of a European project – to thwart American dominance. Nonetheless, the European rearguard action launched against Californian Google supremos Larry Page and Sergey Brin has not proved a genuinely promising strategy.

The Google Print project has seen the emergence of considerable problems, not just regarding the political issue of cultural dominance. It remains utterly unclear, for example, whether publishing houses control the rights that they are to transfer to Google. As things are, Google covers all the costs and requests only very limited rights of disposal, leaving publishers to deal with all the complicated legal issues. Google claims it’s merely doing the marketing for the books. Where authors protest, they settle their grievances with their publisher. Google’s role is limited to offering to remove the title from the list.

These days, the prevailing idea with websites is that they ultimately only exist if they are easy to find via Google. If Google Print succeeds, it will pose competition to existing catalogues of books still in print by compiling a global super catalogue, after which books – i.e. knowledge in general – will also await the same fate. That’s power.

A passage in the agreement offered to publishers illustrates the fact that Google Print does more than just tasteful advertising for books. Google posts its patented and very successful little ad banner on sites featuring particular books, as it has traditionally done with websites, and is looking to share the resulting revenues with publishers. Its offer is likely to give rise to major conflicts of interest between publishers, who want to maintain control of their catalogues and channels of distribution, the authors, who demand advertising for their books, and the publishing industry, especially independent retailers and online booksellers. This does not comprise a minor tremor, but tectonic shifts that send a shudder through the foundations of the arts and their commercial structure.

If the European Union now intends to create its own Google Print, unfortunate timing and the lack of a clear-cut perspective could see it embroiled in an atmosphere already agitated by the ongoing debate on updating copyright law. After all, the practical and legal problems would be no different were the instigator of the project from the EU, and not a company from Mountain View, California. In any case, in the past there have been numerous cases of national pride not always proving to be the best and most innovative master planner when it comes to competing with highly innovative private enterprises.

The example of France’s new-look Bibliothèque Nationale, with its highly ambitious aims which also include the digitisation and dissemination of all knowledge, should serve as a warning. The catalogue of digital archives appealingly titled Gallica currently boasts a rather meagre 80,000 titles. Many of these are scanned using outdated technical standards, i.e. as images and as such invisible to full text searches. Gallica is dead on delivery. What’s more, 80,000 titles are already far less than the more than 100,000 publications held online by Amazon today in the word-by-word "Search Inside the Book" function referred to above.

The relative conditions in which Google and its future European counterpart work appear all the more absurd on closer observation. At the European summit two weeks ago, the EU’s Information Society and Media Commissioner Viviane Reding pledged 36 million euros towards the development of a European search engine, and a further 60 million for digitisation. In light of Google’s allocation of 200 million alone for digitising library collections, and bearing in mind its established technology and existing global market presence, the chances of the European challenge succeeding at this level do not appear particularly good.

That said, money is not the only issue here. Despite the billions in its war chests, Microsoft has likewise so far proved unable to crack Google. The possible causes of this were recently explained in US business journal Fortune. Google remains impregnable because it that runs on different operating systems, can be used free of charge and therefore cannot be undercut, and earns its money with advertisements whose very omnipresence makes them so effective. Every website can sign up to the system.

In short, Google prospers by being a node that links so many users. Everybody searches in Google, and for that very reason everyone also wants others to be able to find them there.

On the other hand, however, Google has long since stopped being the “open”, all-smiles platform suggested by its logo and image. This is unmistakeably clear in the agreements that Google is proposing to its publishing partners for access to titles. These are subject to US law and can only be contested at a court in California – a far from promising outlook for a small or medium-sized publisher somewhere in Europe, and certainly not an ideal basis for the "organisation of the world’s knowledge."

A library project strictly limited to English-speaking institutions is equally unacceptable, even if their shelves, of course, include countless volumes in many different languages.

If, as mentioned, Google derives its strength from everybody wanting to be involved, then this provides a far broader front for Europe to launch an offensive strategy than the construction of some sort of rival product. Europe should employ all (political) means at its disposal to insist it also has a role in shaping the rules for the development of any comprehensive library of the future.

The range of demands involved here would first have to be compiled in the form of a long list. This would range from the European place of jurisdiction for Continental publishing partners to a joint declaration of principle from Google and the European Union relating to open and free-of-charge access (both now and in the long term) to resources indexed via the search engine. It would also include the expansion of the knowledge resources to be digitised and indexed to include a broad-based European catalogue of libraries – for which substantial European funding would then be certain to flow. (Just a point here, although it is one of far-reaching consequences. the European Commission currently spends a lot of money to ensure easier access to public sector information. Should not the latter, in particular, also be incorporated in an initiative of this kind?)

In political terms, a successful example of French stubbornness on the cultural front dating back two decades could in fact serve as a model. Back then, France resisted the global liberalisation of trade foreseen in the GATT agreement in order to insist on its "exception culturelle" – the view that cultural assets should be treated separately. The arts programmes established at the time had considerable influence on the promotion of cultural diversity in Europe, from cinema and music to regional culture, benefiting both the culture industry and creative individuals.

The clock is ticking. Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin have once before demonstrated how to shake up the competition with verve and drive. The immense challenge posed today by Google Print and a number of related projects certainly justifies the high hopes placed in the European response. The answer to a wheel that has suddenly picked up speed cannot be, however, to reinvent it just by giving it a European hub. The better response would be to get a hand on the steering.


The article was originally published in German in Perlentaucher on 17 May, 2005.

Rüdiger Wischenbart is a consultant and freelance journalist covering the arts and media.

Translation: Francis Lee. - let's talk european