[iDC] cloud computing and the university

Ulises Mejias ulises.mejias at oswego.edu
Fri Jun 11 11:52:05 UTC 2010

This is related to the topic of education. My school (part of the
State University of New York) recently decided, like many others
schools, to take advantage of the 'free' Google Apps for Education. In
the face of $410 million in budget cuts in the past two years, SUNY
schools are obviously looking for ways to save money. The following is
a letter I wrote (and published in our college newspaper) to alert our
community of some of the implications of the switch to Google.

Maybe brick and mortar campuses are being replaced with
open/distributed learning networks, but education still requires
plenty of *structures,* and it is always interesting to ask how they
are organized.

Keep in mind this was written with a general audience in mind.


As most of you have heard, our campus is getting ready to migrate our
email system to Google sometime in the Fall. The move seems like a
sweet deal: we get not just better functioning email, but a full menu
of apps including calendaring, document creation and sharing, file
storage, and chat -- all at no cost! On top of that, the services
offered through Google Apps for Education come with no adds, 2.5 gigs
of storage, and you get to keep your oswego.edu email tag, from what I
hear. What's not to like?

Well, plenty, if you ask me. But before I share my concerns, let me
disclose two important facts: One, I myself use certain Google
products (who doesn't?). Two, I have a lot of respect for the people
who made the decision to migrate to Google, and I understand the
reasons why the switch is pretty much inevitable. Thus, this is not an
attempt to reverse the decision (even if we could afford to), but
simply to bring more awareness about what life under our Google
overlords might mean.

In my Media Economics class, we discuss the positive and negative
impacts of having a handful of media corporations control pretty much
everything we see and hear. It's easy to see the inordinate power that
companies like News Corp, Disney or Time Warner have on our daily
lives. But Google is soon going to make those companies look like
charming mom and pop operations. Google is creating a monoculture
where people believe Google is all they need. Think about the impact
of having one company control all the software for your computer and
your mobile phone, and one company handling all your personal data,
tracking everything you do through its suite of information and media
products and keeping the data for up to 18 months.

What does Google want to do with all that data? Figure out how to
better direct advertisements to you, of course! Let's not forget that
Google, a company with a market value of $200 billion, derives 97% of
its revenue from advertising. The more Google knows about you, the
better it can target ads at you and make more money -- and Google
wants to know EVERYTHING about you! This perhaps explains why the
company has a venture capital arm that is currently investing in
biotech, genetics, energy, telecom, healthcare, and other things. So
while switching to GMail doesn't mean that we will start seeing adds
for Viagra or teeth whitening products next to our Inbox, it does
probably mean that Google will be scanning our emails and documents in
an effort to collect more information about us, their users.

In essence this means that by using Google, all SUNY Oswego community
members will effectively be working to increase the company's bottom
line. Now, perhaps I'm fooling myself by thinking that because I
CHOOSE to use certain Google products, I can exercise some control and
responsibility. But being forced to use ALL Google products is quite a
different matter (what's the alternative? not using email at school?).
And this is another feature of life under oligopolies, that while
seeming to open up more choices, the arena for choice is actually
being limited. Furthermore, by using Google we are effectively
endorsing its corporate policies on privacy, security and intellectual
property issues. This is problematic at best, for reasons I don't have
the time to get into right now.

Yes, plenty of universities have already jumped on the bandwagon and
saved tons on money. Arizona State is saving $500,000 a year.
University of Washington laid off 66 IT workers (although that's not
necessarily a good thing, is it?). But a few schools are having
serious concerns. The faculty union at Lakehead University, for
instance, filed a grievance citing concerns about privacy and academic
freedom. Apparently those cooky Canadians are worried that since
Google is a US company, it is obligated to hand over any data that the
US government wants to see, like faculty's emails. You might be
thinking: "We don't have to worry about that! We are in the US and
already subject to warrant-less surveillance!" Well, it is Google's
obligations to OTHER countries that worries Yale University, who
recently decided to postpone its migration to Google because of
concerns about cloud computing. You see, in order to have some data
redundancy, Google stores your personal information randomly in 3 of
its 450,000 servers located all over the world. So the folks at Yale
are wondering whether Google is obligated to surrender your data
according to the laws of THOSE countries. In other words, if my email
data is stored in Israel or Malaysia, does that give those governments
the right to monitor it? (of course, even if Google wants to protect
your data, the fact of the matter is that it is a more alluring target
for hackers than a small state college, as demonstrated recently when
some users' GMail accounts were broken into by Chinese hackers).
[UPDATE: UC Davis also ditched GMail over concerns that it did not
comply with the University of California Electronic Communications
Policy, which forbids the university from examining the contents of
e-mails without the consent of the user.]

In the end, I suppose Google is no more evil or no less evil than
Apple, Microsoft, or any other media company. Yes, it is quickly
becoming a bigger monopoly, and that's probably not good for the
public OR for the market. But what troubles me more about our
migration to Google is what it says about the increasing privatization
of education, and our failure to support and fund the public
university. Maybe it's naive to think that public education can remain
free of for-profit interests. But it will certainly be more difficult
to maintain that separation now that we will all be working for

Ulises Mejias
Communication Studies Dept, SUNY Oswego

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