Google’s offer to take over university e-mail systems rouses praise and concern

Students at some U.S. universities could soon find their regular school e-mail interface replaced by one from Gmail.

Several schools are considering adopting Gmail, an e-mail service administered by the search engine giant Google.

Arizona State University in October announced that it was collaborating with Google to provide Gmail and other services to its 65,000 students.

Google is promoting Gmail and other services to educational institutions as part of an initiative called Google Apps for Education.

Under the initiative, Google will provide free Gmail service to schools, which they can use on their own domain names.

That means existing ‘.edu’ addresses won’t change even though e-mail will be hosted on Google computers.

Students already using Gmail seem to welcome the idea.

“I prefer the Gmail interface over the one used by [my] university,” said Alex Flemembaum, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Maryland. “Everything is laid out in a way that makes sense.”

Flemembaum said he mostly uses his Gmail account as a storage space, relying on his university account to collaborate with other students and receive announcements from the university.

Gmail is popular among many users because of its high storage capacity- about 1,000 times greater than that of a typical 2 MB university e-mail service, and the protection it offers against spam and viruses.

Some Gmail features have however raised concerns about privacy. Targeted advertisements have faced criticism because they rely on Google computers to search both outgoing and incoming e-mails for keywords. Some are concerned that e-mail and chat sessions may remain undeleted for years.

Until the switch by Arizona State University, most of the schools adopting Gmail were relatively small in size.

One such school was Cambria-Rowe Business College in Pennsylvania. Earlier this year, Google started providing e-mail and other services for the roughly 400 students and faculty members at the college.

Under the previous system at Cambria-Rowe, students could not send e-mails to people who were not part of the college, said Thomas Hoover, who helped set up the system in the college.

“Before, we wouldn’t give students access to the outside world. [Google] opened up things for the students.”

Hoover says the service was very easy to set up and that it protected students e-mails from viruses and spam. “Students seem to really like it.”

He adds that the service allowed him to customize the Gmail interface by adding the name of the college to it.

The Google service has caught the attention of schools abroad as well. The Faculty of Management Studies, a business school in Delhi University, India adopted the Gmail system in June.

Ankush Trakru, secretary for media relations at the school, helped set up the new service. He says that many of the approximately 300 students and faculty use the new Gmail accounts as their main e-mail addresses.

Neither Hoover nor Trakru believe privacy is of particular concern with Gmail. Trakru said that with typical e-mail services, the administrators have the ability to look at e-mail, while with Gmail it is Google computers that search your e-mail.

“In either case, you can’t promise privacy,” he said.

However, people advocating privacy rights think there’s cause for concern.

The Google service “will expose students at universities to unprecedented levels of surveillance,” says Lillie Coney, Associate Director Electronic Privacy Information Center.

She says some people avoid sending e-mails to Gmail accounts since the service scans incoming e-mails to target ads at the Gmail user receiving them. “You might think that [Gmail] is okay with you, but other people are exposed to it.”

On the other hand, when the e-mail address is that of a university, she says people may not be aware that they’re talking with a Gmail account that will scan their e-mails.

Pam Dixon, executive director, World Privacy Forum says that while individual e-mail users can choose not to use Gmail if they have privacy concerns, students may not have that option.

“If it’s mandatory from the school, I think it changes the privacy argument,” she says, “It’s objectionable if students are not given an alternative.”

However, she says that if students are given other options, “there’s not a fundamental problem.”

In October, reported that a paid version of Google Apps, which will not have advertisements, is in the offing.

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