Tue, Apr 12, 2005 - Page 6 News List

French librarian fears US domination on the Internet

CULTURE WARS The head of the national library worries that Google's plan to place millions of English books online means the world will be viewed through US eyes


As president of the French National Library, Jean-Noel Jeanneney has good reason to feel safe from the frequent incursions of American popular culture into contemporary French life. With its collection of 13 million books, the library is a reassuring symbol of the durability of French literature and thought.

Yet Jeanneney is not one to lower his guard. He grew alarmed last December when he read that Google planned to scan 15 million English-language books and make them available as digital files on the Web. In his view, the move would further strengthen American power to set a global cultural agenda.

"I am not anti-American, far from it," Jeanneney, 62, said in an interview in his office in the library's new headquarters overlooking the Seine river. "But what I don't want is everything reflected in an American mirror. When it comes to presenting digitized books on the Web, we want to make our choice with our own criteria."

So, when Google's initial announcement went unnoticed here, Jeanneney raised his voice. In a Jan. 23 article in the newspaper, Le Monde, entitled "When Google challenges Europe," he warned of "the risk of a crushing domination by America in the definition of the idea that future generations will have of the world."

Europe, he said, should counterattack by converting its own books into digital files and by controlling the page rankings of responses to searches. His one-man campaign bore fruit. At a meeting on March 16, President Jacques Chirac of France asked Jeanneney and the culture minister, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, to study how French and European library collections could be rapidly made available on the Web.

But where there is a will, is there a way?

Jeanneney is the first to acknowledge that he has a clearer idea of where he wants to go than how he will get there. On the technology required, for instance, he said that Europe had the choice of trying to develop its own search engine or of reaching agreement with Google, the world's most popular Internet search service, or perhaps with other Internet search providers, like Amazon.com, Microsoft and Yahoo.

Money, too, is a variable. Newly rich from its stock offering last summer, Google expects to spend US$150 million to US$200 million over a decade to digitize 15 million books from the collections of Harvard, Stanford, the University of Michigan, Oxford University and the New York Public Library.

In contrast, the French National Library's current book scanning program is modest. With an annual budget of only US$1.35 million, it has so far placed online some 80,000 books and 70,000 drawings and will soon add part of its collection of 19th-century newspapers.

"Given what's at stake, US$200 million is very little money," Jeanneney said of Google's planned investment in its program, known as Google Print.

Specifically, Jeanneney said he fears that Google's version of the universal library will place interpretation of French and other Continental European literature, history, philosophy and even politics in US hands. This, he says, represents a greater peril than, say, American movies, television or popular music.

Google says his fears are unfounded. It notes that, as with Google, page rankings on Google Print will be defined by public demand and not by political, cultural or monetary variables. Further, according to Nikesh Arora, vice president for European operations for Google, the company supports all moves to make information available on the Web in all languages.

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