Institutions are switching to Gmail, but are they discussing the fine print?

Many large institutions, such as universities, are beginning to contract their email services out to Google. At the university where I work, we are in the process of switching our accounts over to Google now. All of our students, faculty, and staff will access their university email accounts through a Google interface. In order to do the switchover, which is required of us by the institution, we each individually have to accept Google’s fine print terms of use, which include the following:

Google reserves the right, but shall have no obligation, to pre-screen, flag, filter, refuse, modify or move any Content available via Google services.

The context of that statement has to do with obscene materials, but the statement itself does not limit Google to filtering for any particular stated reasons, and shows that there is no provision for a review of a user’s claim that material that might be deemed obscene by some people was necessary to their work.

It is our policy to respond to notices of alleged infringement that comply with the United States’ Digital Millennium Copyright Act or other applicable law and to terminating the accounts of repeat infringers.

Note that in the above, all that is required for Google to take action is that a person be accused of infringement (presumably by corporate lawyers) and then to refuse to comply with an order that they may not agree is legitimate. No determination of an actual infringement seems to be required, just an accusation.

The privacy terms are not bad. However, there is this:

You agree that Google may provide you with notices, including those regarding changes to the Terms, by email, regular mail, or postings on Google services.

They are free to change their privacy policies at any time.

Google is offering a great deal to institutions in terms of the cost of the service they are provided, as compared to competing providers of email service. However, I’m not sure that institutions account for the non-monetary cost that makes up the difference, which is Google’s opportunity to present users with advertisements. (As a cost, it is paid by employees rather than by the institution.) At our institution, as far as I know, there has been no discussion of the fact that now that we will be using Gmail for our email, we will all be presented with commercial advertising in the context of our relationship to the university as employees or students.

[Note in response to first comment: Google is writing “no ad” contracts with institutions. However, the fine print in the terms of use still requires users to agree to be shown ads.]

I find all of this problematic. But nothing beats Google these days.

2 comments on “Institutions are switching to Gmail, but are they discussing the fine print?

  1. Google actually says they don’t show advertisements for higher ed, or “Premier edition” versions of Gmail. Same goes for “government”, which we use.

    This FAQ – under ‘what kind of scanning …’ also says they don’t even scan our mail for ads, which they could do to show ads on our search screens. But they say they don’t.

    So that’s good, so long as they don’t change their minds, as you say.

    On top of that, your institution probably have a contract that says ‘no ads’. Unless they have a contract that says ‘go, ads go!’, which is also possible.

    I also don’t think the obscenity and DMCA bits are much of an issue for public institutions. These are already rules I have to deal with, as a public employee, and I get the sense that fobbing off the responsibility for enforcing them in the event of a big to-do is a relief for our legal and IT departments.

  2. Thanks for your comments. I added a note to the post in response to the effect that even when an institution signs a “no ads” contract, users still have to agree to be shown ads in the terms of use. I’m not sure exactly what that means.

    Regarding DMCA, I think it is actually a problem for institutions, because it does not allow an academic or an artist to make a fair use case, when they might actually have a very legitimate fair use case that would hold up in a court. They have no recourse. That is a problem that is built into DMCA, but if Google “doesn’t want to be evil” then they can bend a bit for advocates of fair use who are certainly doing creative work in academic institutions.

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