Google Framed As Book Stealer Bent On Data Domination In New Documentary

Posted: May 9, 2013 in Google, Technology

“Google And The World Brain” is a new documentary
about Google’s plan to scan all of the world’s books,
which triggered an ongoing lawsuit being heard today.
The hair-raising film sees Google import millions of
copyrighted works, get sued, lose, but almost get a
literature monopoly in the process. It’s scary, informative, and worth watching if you recognize its
biased portrayal of Google as evil. The film is getting wider release as Google continues
to fight the Author’s Guild in court today. The
organization is demanding $3 billion in damages from
Google for scanning and reproducing copyrighted
books. Google is asking the court to not prevent the
group from filing a class-action suit. “Google And The World Brain” premiered at Sundance
this year, which is where I saw it, but more people
finally got to see the documentary yesterday at the
Vancouver DOXA festival. From the second it starts,
director Ben Lewis’ opinion is clear: Google Books is
as an insidious plot for data domination. See, Google didn’t just want to make a universally accessible
library. It wanted to use all the knowledge to improve
its search and artificial intelligence projects. The film opens with ominous bass and a high-pitched
drones that lead into historic footage of futurist and
sci-fi writer H.G. Wells describing the “world brain” as
a “complete planetary memory for all mankind.” But
for all its benefits, Wells also warns that the world
brain could become powerful enough to displace governments and monitor everyone. Seemingly innocent, Google approaches university
libraries, including Harvard, asking to digitize their
books for free. They pitch it as a way to avert
disasters like the burning of Alexandria or the flooding
of Tulane University’s library during Hurricane Katrina.
Gorgeous shots of some of the world’s most prestigious libraries position them as infinitely
valuable. Head librarians appear in interviews, giddy
with intellectual excitement, and they hastily agree to
Google’s offer. Soon 10 million of their books were
being fed into secret Google scanning machines. Google began showing parts of these scans online,
and that’s when the backlash started. Six million of
the books were under copyright and Google hadn’t
attained permission to scan or reproduce them. In
2005, The Authors Guild and the Association of
American Publishers filed lawsuits claiming Google was essentially stealing the books. Libraries began to
turn on the search giant. Internet scholar Jaron Lanier explains “A book is not
just an extra long tweet,” and others begin to
speculate that Google wants to hoard the books
primarily for its own purposes, not to democratize
their information. The reveal of the film’s thesis would
have been more shocking and perhaps better received if it hadn’t been so blatantly foreshadowed. After three years, the plaintiffs settle with Google for
$125 million, but within the 350-page court document
are shady stipulations that Google now has the
exclusive right to sell scans of any out-of-print book
it’s digitized — even copyrighted ones. The film
labels this as a “monopoly on access to knowledge.” It asks “do we want the universal library in the hands
of one company that can charge whatever they
want?” The documentary’s climax centers around New York
District Court Judge Denny Chin’s choice of whether
to approve the settlement or not. The director does a
remarkable job of making it seem exciting
by positioning the outcome as one man’s decision
about the fate of all knowledge. [Spoiler alert if you didn’t read the newspapers in
2011]: Scored by a barrage of victorious brass music,
Judge Chin announces that he rejects the settlement,
preventing Google’s supposed “monopoly,” and all the
interviewed pundits rejoice. Google And The World Brain ends on a harrowing
note, though. Even if Google can’t reproduce or sell
the copyrighted works it scanned, Google Search and
its artificial intelligence initiatives have already
sucked up all the knowledge. As a Google engineer
told author Nicholas Carr, “We’re not scanning all those books to be read by people. We’re scanning
them to be read by our AI.” The film is a bit sensationalist, and takes several
detours to explore things like whether scanning books
in English is an assault to classical European
languages in which classic works were originally
written. Still, it condenses a fascinating question
about who owns information and the long battle for the answer into quite a stimulating film. You might leave
feeling a little more afraid of Google than before,
especially if you don’t take the more heavy-handed
fear-mongering with a grain of salt. But at the very
least, you’ll stand up reaffirmed that Google is
destined to change humanity in ways much larger than it does today.

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