February 20, 2005

Google defies Europe?

So says Jean-Noël Jeanneney, head of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF) in a Le Monde op-ed. He warns in apocalyptic terms of the "domination écrasante de l'Amérique" ("crushing domination of America"). It's not Google's domination of internet search that bothers him, but something that he thinks is much more important: Google Print and its deal with five major research libraries.

Pour l'instant, la nouvelle n'a guère attiré l'attention que des bibliothécaires et des informaticiens. Et, pourtant, je gage qu'on ne va pas tarder à en mesurer la portée culturelle, donc politique : vaste.

(For now, the news has scarcely attracted the attention of anyone other than librarians and computer scientists. And still, I believe that we will soon measure its cultural (and thus political) impact: enormous.)

This is the problem he sees:

Voici que prendrait forme, à court terme, le rêve messianique qui a été défini à la fin du siècle dernier : tous les savoirs du monde accessibles gratuitement sur la planète entière. Donc une égalité des chances enfin rétablie, grâce à la science, au profit des pays pauvres et des populations défavorisées.

(Here is taking form, in the short term, the messianic dream that was defined at the end of the last century: all the world's knowledge freely accessible all across the planet. Thus equality of opportunity finally established, thanks to science, to the benefit of poor countries and disadvantaged populations.)

But this would be a good thing, right?

Il faut pourtant y regarder de plus près. Et naissent aussitôt de lourdes préoccupations. Laissons de côté la sourde inquiétude de certains bibliothécaires préoccupés, sans trop oser le dire, à l'idée de voir se vider leurs salles de lecture [...]

(We must nevertheless look at it more closely. And immediately serious concerns emerge. Let's leave aside the mute dismay of librarians who are worried, hardly daring to say so, about the idea of seeing their reading rooms emptying [...])

Why, in the end, is this giving Europe a wedgie? Apparently because the future wretched of the earth will be learning Anglo-Saxon attitudes:

Le vrai défi est ailleurs, et il est immense. Voici que s'affirme le risque d'une domination écrasante de l'Amérique dans la définition de l'idée que les prochaines générations se feront du monde. [...] les critères du choix seront puissamment marqués (même si nous contribuons nous-mêmes, naturellement sans bouder, à ces richesses) par le regard qui est celui des Anglo-Saxons, avec ses couleurs spécifiques par rapport à la diversité des civilisations.

(The real challenge is different, and it is huge. Here we have the risk of a crushing domination by America in defining the idea that later generations will have of the world [...] the criteria of choice will be powerfully marked (even if we contribute ourselves, naturally without sulking, to these riches) by the perspective which is that of the Anglo-Saxons, with its specific coloration with respect to the diversity of civilizations.)

So what is to be done? Jeanneney complains about the relatively small scale of the BNF's virtual library efforts, which

... ne vit que de subventions de l'Etat, forcément limitées, et de nos ressources propres, difficilement et vaillamment mobilisées. Notre dépense annuelle ne s'élève qu'à un millième de celle annoncée par Google. Le combat est par trop inégal.

(.. live only on the contributions of the Government, necessarily limited, and our own resources, painfully and valiantly mobilized. Our annual expenditures are barely a thousandth of those announced by Google. The fight is not fair.)

and (you may not be shocked to learn) he suggests a "plan pluriannuel" with a "budget généreux":

Une autre politique s'impose. Et elle ne peut se déployer qu'à l'échelle de l'Europe. Une Europe décidée à n'être pas seulement un marché, mais un centre de culture rayonnante et d'influence politique sans pareille autour de la planète.

L'heure est donc à un appel solennel. Il revient aux responsables de l'Union, dans ses trois instances majeures, de réagir sans délai - car, très vite, la place étant prise, les habitudes installées, il sera trop tard pour bouger.

Un plan pluriannuel pourrait être défini et adopté dès cette année à Bruxelles. Un budget généreux devrait être assuré. C'est en avançant sur fonds publics que l'on garantira aux citoyens et aux chercheurs - pourvoyant aux dépenses nécessaires comme contribuables et non comme consommateurs - une protection contre les effets pervers d'une recherche de profit dissimulée derrière l'apparence d'un désintéressement.

(A different policy is required. And it can only be deployed at the scale of Europe. A Europe determined to be not only a a market, but a center of radiating culture and of political influence without parallel around the planet.

This is the hour for a solemn appeal. It falls to those responsible for the Union, in its three major branches, to act without delay -- for soon, the place will be taken, habits will be established, it will be to late to move.

A multi-year plan could be defined and adopted this year in Brussels. A generous budget should be assured. It's by going forward with public funds that we will guarantee to citizens and to researchers -- providing needed expenses as taxpayers and not as consumers -- protection against the perverse effects of profit-seeking hidden behind the appearance of disinterested service.)

As someone with a couple of decades of experience in negotiating information-sharing arrangements with European agencies in general, and French ones in particular, I'm enjoying a quiet chuckle at the thought of the "protection against perverse effects" that the people serving in such entities can be trusted to provide.

I think that I wish M. Jeanneney well in his campaign. An intercontinental competition to see whose library resources can be more interesting, attractive and open -- how could that be bad? (Well, since I asked: if all European digital library funding, along with various special IPR privileges, were to become the exclusive territory of an agency that is skilled in protecting its mandate, but sclerotic or incompetent in carrying it out. Could this happen? Let's say that there are precedents... It's not only in the private sector that more selfish motives can hide behind the appearance of disinterested service.)

There's an English translation of parts of Jeanneney's esssay on the Union for the Public Domain's list Upd-discuss, along with some interesting commentary.

[via Viewropa]

[Note: I wonder if French défier has the same connotation of consciously confronting a hostile force that English defy does? If so, then Jeanneney and Le Monde's headline writer are guilty of begging the question, since I see no evidence that Europe and Google now view one another in a hostile light, in advance of any future effects of Jeanneney's crusade and similar attempts to stir up resentment. If not, then perhaps a better translation would be challenge.]

[Update: Chris Waigl confirms the suspicion that défier means something closer to "challenge" in this context, as a footnote to a post (in French) full of interesting thoughts.

Steve (Language Hat) had earlier suggested the same thing via email. I expressed some uncertainty on the point, based on various dictionary entries and a small survey of usage on the web, and Steve insightfully observed that défier is often used when we'd say 'defy,' so that can be a valid translation -- but 'defy' inherently has hostile connotations lacking in the French word, which gets them from context". Given the context in this case, it seems to me that Le Monde and M. Jeanneney are floating somewhere in the interval between English "challenge" and "defy".]

[Update 3/27/2006 -- Other relevant posts:

The progress and prospects of the digital BNF (3/8/2005)
France defies Google (3/19/2005)
Eugoogle advances (3/23/2005)
Europe's response to Google to be managed by ... Microsoft? (3/26/2005)
Tomorrow was yesterday (3/27/2005)
News flash: European national libraries are willing to take EU money (4/28/2005)
Open access eh (5/2/2005)
Realistic surrealism (5/10/2005)
Anxious and pleistocene musings (8/1/2005)
Google purge (8/31/2005)


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 20, 2005 10:29 AM