Google's academic record

Despite ongoing scepticism about Google’s privacy policy many Australian universities have embraced Gmail without a smidgen of concern. Let’s hope that their trust is not misplaced.

Google has recently moved to fundamentally change the way consumers use one or more of their 60 services. The new privacy policy came into force in March this year and supposedly strives to deliver more relevant search results. Google is anchoring its growth strategy on this new policy allowing them to combine and share data across each platform. They need to satisfy the stock market analysts by continuing to deliver increased profits, even if it is at the expense of their long held slogan of ‘do no evil’.  The ‘one user profile’ to be used across all 60 services will greatly diminish consumers to alternate between different personas. Google has been in plenty of hot water in the past when it comes to privacy and the new policy adds another layer of complexity for those organisations that have moved to Gmail for corporate email? 

A number of Australian organisations now use Gmail, including some of our major educational institutions, who have embraced the platform for student email.  Monash University – Australia’s largest by student population has adopted Gmail – with Vice Chancellor, Professor Edward Byrne stating it provided “accessible, user-friendly and cost-effective e-communication”.  Similarly, the University of Adelaide has given students the Gmail option with the Vice Chancellor Professor James McWha stating he had been “actively working to find a solution to the increasing challenge of providing quick, efficient and greater capacity email services to students.”  It is a familiar story at Macquarie University with CIO Marc Bailey saying during the rollout that Google had mitigated all of their concerns surrounding “privacy and intellectual property and regulatory ramifications.”

Listening to Bailey, one wonders how serious Macquarie University were with their concerns, and with the creation of the new privacy policy if they are going to re-visit this matter? The same applies to Monash and Adelaide, were they blind-sighted by potential cost reductions to assess relevant privacy and anti-trust issues?

Citing reduced costs as a prime reason why Macquarie University went with Gmail, Google Australia spokesman Rob Shilken said "naturally, we support measures to encourage competition… which will further reduce costs to Australian consumers and support the growth of the digital economy."

When picking Gmail for student email, Melbourne University Provost John Dewar said “the ultimate aim is to provide a user-friendly and cost-effective email system.”

Yet this pure cost-saving phenomenon has not caught on everywhere.  The University of California decided after an evaluation process not to use Gmail with CIO Peter Siegal notifying employees that he "expressed concerns that our campus’s commitment to protecting the privacy of their communications is not demonstrated by Google and that the appropriate safeguards are neither in place at this time nor planned for in the near future.”

Similarly, at Yale University, when announcing they were putting on hold a migration to Gmail, computer science professor Michael Fischer said “Yale is an international, multicultural community of scholars. Students deserve to have rights to their information while on campus.”

Like many private sector organisations, Australian universities are constantly looking at ways to reduce costs and deliver better services, and the use of cloud facilities, particularly for email makes sense.  But we can’t forget privacy and trustworthiness in this drive for efficiency.

The issues surrounding this privacy policy will only multiply in coming years as Google seeks to dominate new verticals, such as finance, ensuring their products always list at the top of the page on search terms (rather than returning search based on most relevance) – along with matching ads depending on students inbox contents – greatly reducing search neutrality principles – the concept being there should be no restrictions to accessing content on the web with search results based on impartiality and relevance.

Recently the Obama administration announced a ‘privacy bill of rights’ a set of guidelines which would allow online consumers to have more control over the types of data companies collect.  The Australian government is debating changes to the National Privacy Principles in the upcoming parliamentary sitting period which will hopefully give the Privacy Commissioner more teeth when conducting investigations.

Privacy frameworks need to be developed which apply to consumer data that can be reasonably linked to a specific consumer, computer, or other device.  With Google having over 90 per cent of the Australian market share in search and gaining a foothold with campus email, maybe it’s time for Australian universities to consider these implications and demand these same rights for their students.

Nigel Phair is director of the Centre for Internet Safety at the University of Canberra.

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