What should Google do? Information for Africa.

The New York Times reports on Google.org’s priorities for philanthropy, including early warning systems for natural disasters and middle-class entrepreneurship in Africa. All good causes.

The organizers say that they want to focus on what “DotOrg” can do “uniquely”. So I was surprised that they have not prioritized information access for Africa.

One of the saddest aspects of distance and underdevelopment access is that even the most educated have almost no access to books. There are few if any libraries. My friend Michael could not even find a bookstore in Guinea-Buissau.

Two thoughts:

  1. First, what if publishers (especially academic presses) agreed to let their books, especially those more than a few years old, be printed without copyright in Africa for distribution within that continent alone? For volumes priced less than $30, re-exports to the rich world would be so expensive that little incentive would exist for them to attempt to reship and resell.
  2. Or what if Google’s vast mass of online books, or the major publishers and academic journals, made online content free to those coming from African IP addresses? Or even from specific ones, like African universities?

The idea has much in common with Jenny Lanjouw’s proposal that drug companies have to choose whether to enforce their patents in either rich or poor countries, but not both.

What can DotOrg do? Someone needs to lead this charge, and get the publishers and copyright owners on board. Is this mission right for DotOrg? Google’s stated mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. Sounds close to me.