Between Google and a hard place

As most of you have heard, our campus is getting ready to migrate our e-mail system to Google in the fall. The move seems like a sweet deal: we get not just better functioning e-mail, 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 ads, 2.5 gigs of storage, and you get to keep your oswego.edu e-mail 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 percent 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, health care and other things. So while switching to GMail doesn’t mean that we will start seeing ads for Viagra or teeth whitening products next to our inbox, it does probably mean that Google will be scanning our e-mails and documents in an effort to collect more information about us, their users.

In essence this means that by using Google, all Oswego State 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 e-mail 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 of money. Arizona State is saving $500,000 a year. The 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 kooky Canadians are worried that since Google is a U.S. company, it is obligated to hand over any data that the U.S. government wants to see, like faculty’s e-mails.

You might be thinking: "We don’t have to worry about that! We are in the U.S. and already subject to warrant-less surveillance!" Well, it is Google’s obligations to other countries that worry 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 three 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 e-mail 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).

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 Google.

Sincerely,
Dr. Ulises A. Mejias
Communication Studies