Google today defended its plan to scan and publish millions of books online, telling a European Commission hearing it made access to information on the Web more democratic.

The California company struck a deal with author and publisher groups in the United States earlier this year, allowing it to copy books for the Internet.

But the deal has been criticized and come under the gaze of the U.S. Justice Department because it does not say what Google might charge libraries, some of which fear the service will become an expensive must-have.

Dan Clancy, architect of the Google program, defended the project on Monday, saying it stemmed in part from the group's ambition to allow Web surfers to find out-of-print books.

"We have seen a democratization of access to online information," Clancy told a crowded hearing by the European Commission - the European Union's executive arm or civil service.

"You can discover information which you did not know was there," Google's engineering director said. "It is important that these (out-of-print) books are not left behind. Google's interest was in helping people to find the books."

An author at the hearing also spoke in favor of Google.

"The settlement mostly only affects out-of-print books," said James Gleick, one of a number of writers who sued Google and later settled the action to let it scan old books and print them online.

"For us who are authors of out-of-print books, it brings our work to a whole new audience."

Others were more skeptical. ICOMP, a lobby group sponsored by US software giant Microsoft, said Google's plans to scan and publish would concentrate too much power in its hands.

David Wood, a lawyer working for ICOMP, told journalists ahead of the hearing that Google was on track to create an "enduring monopoly" in the supply of online books.

Earlier this year, the EU said it would study the Google deal after Germany complained that the company had scanned books from U.S. libraries to create a database without asking the owners.

People in the publishing industry and others will be giving their opinions at the Commission's public hearing.

The European Union has launched its own online register, Europeana, which includes books and images ranging from Shakespeare to pictures of French actress Brigitte Bardot.

Nonetheless, most European countries have been slow in scanning and publishing local literature for Europeana.