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Updated: Did Google Really Delete eBooks Just Because the Owner Was in the Wrong Country?

August 17th, 2013 by · 18 Comments · Google

question-markHere’s an odd story which I am still not completely sure is true.

One traveler is reporting that the Google Books app on his iPad removed the ebooks he bought from Google Play because he happened to be in an unsupported country. As the story goes, he is in Singapore and happened to update the Play Books app on his iPad. After the update the app removed the ebooks because Google doesn’t sell ebooks in Singapore yet.

Update: The original source left a comment with more details.

This story set off my BS meter, but that is what he is claiming:

So when I got here, I noticed that several of my iPad apps had updates on offer, so I clicked and approved. One of them was Google Play. When it finished and I went to open the app, it told me that it needed to update my book files and this might take several minutes. Time passed and the screen filled in the covers of the 30 or 40 titles I keep live on the machine. Two of them were books I am actively reading for my teaching this fall.

But all of my books had un-downloaded and needed to be downloaded again. The app is an inefficient downloader, almost as bad as the New Yorker app, so I dreaded this, but clicked on the two I needed most at once. (I checked the amount of storage used, and indeed the files really have gone off my tablet.)

And it balked. It turns out that because I am not in a country where Google Books is an approved enterprise (which encompasses most of the countries on the planet), I cannot download. Local wisdom among the wizards here speculates that the undownloading occurred when the update noted that I was outside the US borders and so intervened.

At this point I still don’t have any corroborating reports, so I am not inclined to believe this story. There’s nothing in Google’s support pages to back this up, I’ve never read about it before, and I can’t find similar reports via Google.

If nothing else, the simple fact that Google only sells books in 27 countries would seem to increase the chances that this event would have happened and been reported. I have never heard of this happening before. Have you?

I have been told by Andrew Rhomberg, founder of ebook startup JellyBooks, that it’s possible, but IMO it is also an incredibly stupid way to run a content store. No other ebookstore has policies anywhere close to this supposed policy,  and that’s the other reason I don’t believe this story.

Update: On the other hand, a quick poll digital publishing insiders hasn’t found anyone who thought it was impossible. In fact, one even went so far as to describe it as:

If you have info to share, the comment section is open. And if you work for Google and know that this isn’t true, give me something I can use to debunk it.

Update: The original source showed up in the comments and provided more details. Suddenly the story makes a lot more sense:

Two footnotes: (1) The books were not bought books, they were Google Books scanned 19th century books, all of them *clearly* public domain; (2) I have since discovered that about 6 of the 40 are in fact downloadable, but there is *no* pattern — volume 2 of Middlemarch is downloadable, but not volumes 1 or 3 of the same issue. The error message is that they don’t have Google Play in my country. — One technical point: my iPad had signaled that the app had an update available and I did that; it was doing the update that called attention to my extraterritoriality and zapped all my books. If I hadn’t touched the update, I would have probably been just fine.

I *do* think the Google Play app on the iPad is lousy. Takes *forever* to download things, so I will have 6-8 hours of watching grass grow when I get home and want the books back.

I have heard of any number of problems concerning Google Books, so I am not surprised to read of another.

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18 Comments so far ↓

  • fjtorres

    Georestriction policies are directed at the location where the purchase is made, not where reading takes place. Most ebookstores distinguish between purchase location and d/l location to allow travelers to access their purchased ebooks anywhere.
    If Google were in fact applying georestriction rules *after* purchase, surely we would have heard of it before. Their market share is tiny but not so small that this would be the first cross-border update.
    Something else is going on.

    • David

      Maybe true for Google but not for Amazon. With Amazon it is where you are registered which counts (i.e. where your credit card says you live).
      I live in Sweden and can buy from the “international” store. I cannot buy from the UK store. If I travel to the UK I can still NOT buy from the UK store but only from the international store. If I travel to the US I cannot buy from the US store but only from the international store.

  • CJJ

    This is absolutely false. I bought a Google e-book in Wisconsin and it downloaded just fine when I was visiting New York (which might as well be another universe let alone another country).

  • Peter Simmons

    Or it could be an unintended glitch of the kind that happen with computers all the time, or is anyone claiming everything always works perfectly and there are never strange things that happen that even techies can’t figure? So my guess is incompetence rather than deliberate.

  • Joseph Esposito

    Nate,

    You’re wrong about this one. I know O’Donnell very well. He is a distinguished professor at Georgetown and is very technically savvy. He formerly was the CIO of the U. of Pennsylvania. He studies electronic publishing and knows what he is talking about.

    Joe Esposito

    • Nate Hoffelder

      I do not dispute that he is knowledgeable but that doesn’t guarantee he didn’t miss a detail or misunderstand what had happened.

      Joe, would you take a paper which showed a starting test result at face value or would you want someone to duplicate the results before you fully believed the results?

      This situation is so bizarre that I have trouble believing it.

      • Joseph Esposito

        Your characteristic skepticism is admirable and is one of the reasons I follow the Digital Reader. I simply know more about this one situation because I know the individual involved. Note that O’Donnell’s comment was made on an academic library listserv, where it was offered for comment. Comments are coming in now. No one has yet found a technical glitch that O’Donnell missed. It would of course be great if O’Donnell were wrong and that there is a fix to this, but I think this is a more fundamental problem.

        Joe Esposito

  • Jim O'Donnell

    This was my story and it’s as it happened; put it on the liblicense-l list and it got picked up by Boing Boing. The Google Play help staff that I reached by email did not dispute it and offered no solution. Two footnotes: (1) The books were not bought books, they were Google Books scanned 19th century books, all of them *clearly* public domain; (2) I have since discovered that about 6 of the 40 are in fact downloadable, but there is *no* pattern — volume 2 of Middlemarch is downloadable, but not volumes 1 or 3 of the same issue. The error message is that they don’t have Google Play in my country. — One technical point: my iPad had signaled that the app had an update available and I did that; it was doing the update that called attention to my extraterritoriality and zapped all my books. If I hadn’t touched the update, I would have probably been just fine.

    I *do* think the Google Play app on the iPad is lousy. Takes *forever* to download things, so I will have 6-8 hours of watching grass grow when I get home and want the books back.

    Jim O’Donnell

    • Nate Hoffelder

      So this problem had as much to do with the (non-commercial and much litigated) Google Books than with Google Play Books?

      Now the story is suddenly making a lot of sense. I have read of an unending number of technical issues with the Google Books project. This latest incident is only a couple degrees removed from their previous examples of incompetence.

      • Ravi

        Yes, this makes more sense. To take one example, Mike Cane has had all sorts of troubles with downloads (all from the US, I believe):

        http://mikecanex.wordpress.com/2012/03/13/free-google-books-downloads-work-again/

        As someone who’s lived in Singapore for the past few years and has been using various forms of paid and country-restricted Google content (apps, music, video and even a few books via free offers) the whole time, I have a much harder time believing in a non-glitch issue on the paid/Play side of the house. Even in the “dark days” when Google cared more about the country of your SIM card than that of your credit card, there was always a way re-download stuff you’d already paid for (or downloaded in the case of free apps). The most annoying issue I remember was having to go through your past purchases/apps to re-download apps that weren’t allowed in my current country (most notably the Kindle app, ironically enough).

  • Thomas

    Going by what O’Donnell said at face value, I don’t see what’s so unbelievable about this situation. With your headline, you imply that Google actively went onto his device and specifically deleted books because of georestriction issues. That doesn’t seem to be what happened.

    He received a Play update, which had the unintended side effect of forcing him to re-download all his books. Unfortunately, that also meant that due to his location, he couldn’t download some of them.

    Stupid on Google’s part? Probably. My guess is that their programmers missed this particular use case and assumed that it would be acceptable to have users re-download their books with the update, not considering georestriction issues with people traveling outside of their home country. But hardly unbelievable.

  • Ron Martinez

    Jeering at developers for missing a use case (Baldur’s quote) is kind of odious, don’t you think?

    • Joseph Esposito

      I don’t know, Ron, just what Baldur was getting at, but certainly Google has been deaf to the comments from the academic community about Google Books. It’s not as though O’Donnell is the first guy to point out what a mess the service is.

      Joe Esposito

  • Ron Martinez

    That may be. Admit I don’t know all that much about the academic community and its discontents.

    But it’s likely more a matter of Google’s management not prioritizing the requirements of such users than incompetence. In fact, I’d wager their neglect of academic user requirements is executed with matchless technical virtuosity.

    Wasn’t referring to O’Donnell, btw. His report is a useful bit of information.

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