Foreign Policy Blogs

Is there a right to knowledge?

Google Books, the ambitious plan by Sergey Brin and Larry Page to make available for free huge quantities of digitized books, suffered yet another blow on Friday as the US Department of Justice urged a federal judge to deny a settlement agreement that Google reached with authors and publishers over copyright issues.  The heart of the Department of Justice’s concerns are antitrust issues and whether the settlement would give Google an unfair advantage over competitors in the relatively new digital book market.  It is therefore no surprise that Google’s main competitors in the area, including Yahoo!, Microsoft, and Amazon, have also lined up to fight the settlement agreement.  But as an avid user of Google Books, my question is not so much about the possible antitrust issues but whether the world has a right to the information being posted there.

Article 19(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights holds that freedom of expression includes the right to information.  Specifically, it states that

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.

It goes on to admit that governments can place certain restrictions on these rights, but only if necessary.  This has long been understood to cover access to government information, such as rights covered by the Freedom of Information Act in the US.  But increasingly some are starting to include access to knowledge, particularly in regards to the internet, in this rubric as well.

Such “open access” thinking is what powers internet phenomena such as Wikipedia, which currently contains more than three million articles, and Creative Commons which allows users to find artwork that they can legally reuse.  Recently, it is also the justification behind academic sharing, such as the OpenCourseWare consortium and other smaller projects sharing academic work.  And of course, any conversation these days about easy access to written material would include Google Books.

Part of the reason why Google Books appears to run afoul of other open access projects is that it posts material that other people could possibly be paid for.  In other words, by posting an entire scanned book online, the author of that work may lose out on a royalty that they would have otherwise received.  The copyright concerns was the reason why Google entered into settlement negotiations with authors and publishers to develop a royalty system for Google Books.  But even this copyright argument is starting to lose ground among some in the publishing and academic world.  Last year, some of the faculties at Harvard and Stanford University (coincidentally two partners with the Google Books Library Project) voted to give online open access to their academic publications.  In explaining why they voted for this open access policy, John Willinsky and Deborah Stipek of Stanford University pointed out that such information should be free for all in a democratic society.  In an editorial published by the San Jose Mercury News, they wrote:

Public interest in finding information on the Web has gone academic as well, now that the virtual campus gates have begun to open. People are following links from Wikipedia to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York Times columns include links to economics papers. Visitors log on to Galaxy Zoo, eager to assist astronomers in classifying the galaxies within the massive data sets accumulated by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Students tap into open educational resources of every sort, from online textbooks to lesson materials.

Even if this new access to knowledge has yet to affect test scores or improve U.S. rankings in international comparisons in education, it does provide students with richer sources from which to learn. Citizens have new opportunities to consider and critically review sources of information. Open access of scholarly research can only add to the educational and deliberative quality of democratic life.

This is the generally thinking behind a right to information that encompasses a right to knowledge and the tools to gain that knowledge.  It is why organizations such as UNESCO encourage open access policies, especially for the developing world where access to traditional forms of knowledge such as books is out of reach for many people.  Google Books aims to provide millions of books online from around the world for anyone who wants to read them.  Are there business considerations too?  Of course.  But is it fair to deny people the ability to access that knowledge because of those business concerns?

It is also interesting that as this debate over Google Books goes on in the US, other courts in the world seem to be going the opposite direction than the Department of Justice.  For example France’s highest court found in June that a law creating an internet police agency to fight against copyright piracy violated people’s basic human rights, which included the right to the internet.  Although the decision and the law in question mainly concerned music piracy, the general issue is not that far off from the debate around Google Books.

In other words, there may be more than antitrust and copyright issues at stake in the Google Books settlement saga.  Given the size and stature of Google, the ultimate outcome of this debate may determine more than the future of internet copyright law; it may also determine what information and knowledge the rest of us have a fundamental right to.



Kimberly J. Curtis
Kimberly J. Curtis

Kimberly Curtis has a Master's degree in International Affairs and a Juris Doctor from American University in Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of The Women's Empowerment Institute of Cameroon and has worked for human rights organizations in Rwanda and the United States. You can follow her on Twitter at @curtiskj

Areas of Focus: Transitional justice; Women's rights; Africa