(The following article was co-written by Dr. Jackie Smith — of the International Network of Scholar Activsts — and TCBH writer Alfredo Lopez. It is being published here and in other places.)
In October of 2006, Google launched its Apps for Education, with Arizona State University being its first client. Today there are more than 25 million individual users in both K-12 and higher ed institutions, and 74 of the top 100 universities use Google apps for their university communications and software applications.
Victor Alhadeff, CEO of Boost eLearning, a Google for Work and Google for Education partner, cites projected figures exceeding 110 million users by 2020. He notes that the current user base represents only about 4.5% of the potential market, and that there is tremendous potential for growth—mainly in developing countries.
Google’s educational packages include things like the google calendar, Google docs, Google classroom, gmail, and most recently it has added the Chromebook. Chromebooks are low-cost and easy-to-use notebooks that come with support and built-in access to Google Apps. They are offered to schools participating in Google for Education for $149. Google reports that it sold more than 1 million Chromebooks in just the second quarter of 2014. In November of 2014, the New York City School Department of Education adopted Chromebook as part of its approved and supported tools in its 1800 schools.
Schools across the U.S. and around the world are now “going Google,” as the companies marketers like to say.
Why should we worry?
For starters, as it does with its gmail users, Google scans user’s incoming and outgoing emails to help it develop targeted advertising. Following complaints from users, some institutions have tried to limit this practice. But since Google provides its product for free, they have limited bargaining power and few means to monitor and enforce restrictions on what Google does with user data.
Despite Google’s announcement in May of 2014 that it would stop scanning student and faculty email for advertising purposes, the company continues to operate scanning filters for purposes such as spam, spell-check, and other technical purposes.
Moreover, it is not clear whether and how educational users’ personal gmail accounts may be linked to those provided through Apps for Education. Private accounts are not protected by Google’s no-scanning for advertising pledge. As recently as February 2016, a new lawsuit was filed by students and alumni of the University of California-Berkeley over allegations that emails were illegally intercepted and scanned by Google.
But threats of unwanted advertising are not the only ones emerging from our growing reliance on Google communications technologies. According to Leaked NSA documents, Google is among the companies that cooperate with the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program, which authorizes the U.S. government to secretly access data of non-U.S. citizens hosted by American companies without a warrant. Data from U.S. citizen accounts may be disclosed by Google in response to a government warrant.
The presence of large companies like Google that collect data from millions of people provides governments with an extremely attractive and easy way to identify and punish people deemed a threat to government authority. This may mean a student anti-austerity protester in Greece or activists in the U.S. working with individuals or groups that have been labeled as “terrorists” by the U.S. government. Depending on the political climate, it could also apply to people protesting U.S. military interventions or trade policies.
Not only can governments lay claim to these large stores of data, but the corporations themselves could also make use of their privileged access to information to thwart threats from anti-corporate movements. The point is that concentrated power is dangerous. In an information-driven economy and society, the concentration of data in organizations like Google presents a huge threat to our freedom and to social movements.
Researchers and educators also need to worry about how Google’s infiltration of universities in particular impacts our ability to do research. Typically participants in research studies are granted confidentiality, and such confidentiality may be compromised by the use of this kind of technology. The PRISM surveillance program is a particular threat to international research, since data on non-U.S. citizens’ may be collected without a warrant. Researchers working on international questions as well as those working with vulnerable groups may find it more difficult to gain participation in their studies, and if they do they cannot reasonably promise research participants confidentiality.
This is not just a problem for researchers and the institutions for which they work, but it affects the whole of society which may benefit from this kind of research.
Finally, as was alluded to above, it is critical to note that Google’s aim is to expand its market share. By getting Google products in the hands of users before they can read, Google is building a giant base of people who will likely be life-long users of its products. By spoon feeding young people on easy-to-use applications, they will become addicted to Google. They may not even become aware that there are alternatives, since all of their classmates, friends, and teachers use Google. And since they grew up on Google, they will likely find other applications daunting. Educators themselves lack awareness of the non-corporate software and internet service options that are available, since their institutions are usually captured by the likes of Google and Microsoft. Few colleges and universities in the United States, for instance, support Linux operating systems. The process of corporate capture is not unlike the efforts of junk food companies to use promotional school contracts to gain captive audiences for their products.
We need to start raising consciousness about corporate concentration in the information and technology sector and its implications for privacy and freedom. And educators need to come together to resist the corporate capture of our schools and help our students make informed technology choices.
Jackie Smith is professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. She is co-founder of the International Network of Scholar Activists and serves on the leadership committee of May First/People Link.
Alfredo Lopez is a veteran activist and co-founder and member of the Leadership Committee of May First/People Link. He is a member of the ThisCantBeHappening Collective and author or co-author of several publications, including The Organic Internet: Organizing History’s Largest Social Movement.