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Switch to Google e-mail saves resources, raises privacy concerns

by Phillip Todd

Ask Lakehead University students if they're happy with their school's one-year-old Google-run e-mail service, and chances are you'll get a positive response.

"I love the new Lakehead gmail e-mail system," said third-year political-science student Brianne Kirkpatrick.

"Since the switch to gmail, I find it has replaced my hotmail as the e-mail of preference," said David Grad, a third-year, continuing education history major.

Lakehead is the first university in Canada to outsource its e-mail service to a private company such as Google or Microsoft, an option more and more schools in both the United States and Canada are contemplating as they struggle to provide reliable service through costly in-house e-mail systems.

"When Google made the offer that it wouldn't cost us anything, no ads, I couldn't believe the offer," said Michael Pawlowski, Lakehead vice-president, administration and finance, who oversaw the transition in the fall of 2006. "So we took the three-year arrangement which included not only e-mail, but calendaring, instant messaging ... word processing - the whole application."

According to the U.S. weekly The Chronicle of Higher Education, more than 1,000 U.S. colleges have adopted either Google Apps Education Edition or Microsoft's Live@Edu product suite. Arizona State University (with 65,000 student e-mail users) reported an annual savings of $500,000 as a result of the change. Both Google and Microsoft offer their product suites for free to non-profit academic institutions, and say they will continue to do so.

Dr. Pawlowski noted that Lakehead (with 38,000 users, including alumni, faculty, staff and students) is saving about $250,000 a year, adding that the real dollar value of such quality service should probably be counted in the millions. He added that his office has fielded calls from at least a dozen schools across North America who are considering outsourcing e-mails, including at least three in Canada.

With Google Apps Education Edition, a Lakehead e-mail account (see image below) retains the university's branding and the lakeheadu.ca domain name. In every other respect, the user's e-mail operates like a regular gmail account, except that students don't get ads displayed alongside their e-mails. Once a student graduates, however, if he or she keeps the account, gmail's regular e-mail advertising becomes visible.

Microsoft's Live@Edu suite operates with the same conditions, using hotmail accounts, calendaring and other tools. The largest Canadian school to have adopted it so far is Canadore College (with 3,500 students), which has ties to Nipissing University in North Bay, Ontario.

At Lakehead, each student has about 2.5 gigabytes of storage space, up from about 10 megabytes ("peanuts compared to what we get today with Google," bragged Dr. Pawlowski). Except for some problems with spam, from a technical point of view the transition to gmail has been painless, he added.

However, while students and the administration may be embracing the practical upsides of the switch to gmail - great value, savings and reliability - faculty at Lakehead haven't come under Google's spell. In late 2006, the Lakehead faculty union filed a grievance with the university, now under arbitration, asserting that the e-mail system fails to protect their privacy and academic freedom.

At the heart of the complaint is Google's status as a U.S. company. Because Google is subject to American law, Lakehead will not be able to protect the contents of faculty's e-mail from the U.S. government, which under the U.S. Patriot Act can compel Google to hand over data without even allowing the company to inform Lakehead that the transaction took place. Noting that Lakehead was the first school in North America that asked faculty, as well as students, to use an outsourced e-mail service, the Canadian Association of University Teachers has taken up the case.

"If a faculty member knows that any e-mail they write, by virtue of it being handled by Google, could be subject to access and seizure by U.S. security agencies, they might be much less willing to share views with their colleagues" said CAUT Executive Director James Turk. "As we've seen all too often, very innocent things can attract the interest of American security officials."

Dr. Pawlowski responded that if people are worried about the issue of access by a foreign power, then they shouldn't use gmail. He noted that Lakehead's collective bargaining agreement does not require the university to provide faculty with e-mail service and that official e-mail can be sent to any address.

He also said the university has a strict policy against transmitting by e-mail data that is considered personal and private (faculty and staff who break this rule, including professors who e-mail students their marks, have been disciplined, he added).

"What we are saying is use your e-mail for anything that you would put on the back of a postcard ... Anything that is private should not go on e-mail," said Dr. Pawlowski.

Dr. Turk insists that the issue isn't about private and personal details ending up in e-mails. It's about the likelihood that a professor whose research touches on a subject that could be deemed of interest to U.S. security agencies can't write an e-mail about his work without wondering if it will land him on a terrorist watch list - even by accident.

"It is in the interest of the university to do everything possible to protect the academic freedom of its faculty and students," said Dr. Turk. "Contracting out to Google or to one of its competitors in the United States has a chilling effect on academic freedom that will ultimately be harmful to the university."

"Even if we had our server in-house," said Dr. Pawlowski, "I don't believe we would have any control over who sees what and who accesses what." Noting that he tries to take the most pragmatic possible view of the world we live in today, Dr. Pawlowski added: "Any government, because of the legal system, can access the information. It takes them a little longer and a little more work. That's it."

While the arbitration process is non-binding, the university is taking the complaint seriously. The conflict has moved from internal to external arbitration, with a professional mediator overseeing the process. A ruling isn't expected before later this spring.

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