A Week In Books: Californian new-media giant's drive to diversify

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The Independent Culture

With the twin hulks of its Sixties-style hotels standing guard over miles of unspoilt coastline and woodland, Porto Carras in northern Greece looks like just the sort of place where a Bond-movie megalomaniac would hatch his plans to dominate the globe. So, in one respect, it didn't come as that much of a shock to arrive at the resort on the Chalkidiki peninsula last week and hear a charming young man purr silkily that "Our mission is to organise all the information of the world". This was at the "Pan-European conference on books", which kicked off just after the French "non" with a generally Europhile bunch of publishers, civil servants and writers nursing an almighty political hangover. And the persuasive German who added insult to their injuries was Jens Redmer of (who else?) Google.

Based in Hamburg, he stands in the European front line of the Californian new-media giant's drive to diversify. Its galloping "Google Print" project aims to digitise the world's books and make all or parts of them available for browsing or sampling online. "There's no evil masterplan behind this," Redmer soothed. Meanwhile, the assembled Euro-literati bristled with as much alarm, suspicion and - it should be said - sheer unbridled fascination as if Goldfinger himself had moored his yacht in the marina and come to lecture us. "This is not a programme to eliminate publishers or libraries," he affirmed. "It's merely a function to help people discover books."

Google has already struck a deal with five leading libraries (Oxford, Stanford, Harvard, Michigan and the New York Public Library) to put 15 million works online. Now the firm is seeking one-off agreements with publishers to allow it to scan their output, index the entire content, and make free tasters available - within copyright limits - to any user. Google Print (www.print.google.com) intends merely "to help to promote books in print and to stimulate sales".

Is this a smart missile targeted at authors' and publishers' livelihoods? Another fiendish "Anglo-Saxon" plot? Or a selfless, if unilateral, bid to upgrade the quality of online information and switch the digital generation back on to books?

The global row over Google Print's challenge to traditional publishing - and librarianship - has blown up as fast and violently as the spectacular thunderstorms that descended from the Balkans on to Chalkidiki last week. At Porto Carras, the Google-sceptics found a courteous champion in Jean-Marie Borzeix from the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. What gives "one private enterprise alone" the right to commandeer the legacy of literature, he asked. What happens if Google's shareholders decide one day to dump the principle of gratuité: free access? Why should we believe that the Google search algorithms are "neutral" rather than culture-bound? Google claims to offer a multi-lingual service but, surely, "every language culture is better placed than another to present to the world its intellectual heritage". "Il faut être très vigilant," he warned.

Google, like other new-tech leviathans, gets a shamefully soft ride from the British media. It was riveting to hear not corporate PR dressed up as journalism but authentic argument, even if I did have to visit the home of Aristotle of Stageira (in Chalkidiki) - the first organiser of the world's knowledge - to hear it. And it wasn't Californian commerce that erected this platform but the dull, despised old EU, working with the National Book Centre of Greece under the "Multi-annual co-operation agreement in the field of books and reading". Who would vote for such waffle? Yet it made a proper debate happen, as Google (or Yahoo, or Microsoft) never would. In this oldest corner of old Europe, perhaps the citizen has not yet - quite - declined into a simple consumer.