With is newly announced “Classroom” project, Google is hoping to provide educators with an all-in-one platform for managing assignments and sharing documents. Once you agree to its terms of service. And therein lies the rub.
A Canadian teacher’s union is worried that Classroom will allow for the progressive ideas that proliferate in academia to be tracked and mined for data, potentially causing professors worried about becoming targets of government surveillance to self-censor. In other words, they claim Classroom is a limit on academic freedom.
For several years, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) has held the position that Google’s intrusion into the arena of education poses nothing short of a threat to academia’s hallowed freedom of ideas by compromising the privacy and security of educators’ files. Classroom, which is linked to Google Drive, exacerbates this concern.
Classroom is part of Google's Apps for Education suite of productivity tools. Google didn't return a request for comment as to whether it will in fact scan the contents of Classroom documents, though the website assures that Classroom "contains no ads, and "never uses your content or student data for advertising purposes."
It's not a far-fetched assumption, however. Earlier this year Google came under fire for data-mining the content of student emails who had signed up for Apps for Education. Only in the face of a class-action lawsuit did the company update its policy to stop mining data specifically for targeted ads.
"Classroom is part of Google Apps for Education and we do NOT scan Google Apps for Education for advertising purposes. Google Apps for Education services do not collect or use student data for advertising purposes or create advertising profiles," a Google spokesperson told Motherboard.
That said, the company would presumably be required to hand over the data to law enforcement or government authorities if requested.
“They fall under the US Patriot Act, and any request for the data that is stored by Google has to be turned over to US authorities,” David Robinson, executive director of CAUT, said. “And of course that creates some real academic freedom concerns when people with enormous power suddenly have access to all your information, documents, papers, drafts of papers, and emails to colleagues.”
Robinson’s reaction may seem a little paranoid, but not without some cause. Many professors are already being targeted by university administrators for touting unpopular or otherwise unprofitable ideas. The fear is that putting more research documents and curriculum on Google’s cloud via Classroom would leave educators even more vulnerable to authorities’ scrutiny.
This is a more Kafkaesque fear.
Take, for example, the recent case of Robert Buckingham, a faculty Dean at the University of Saskatchewan who was fired and banned from campus for speaking out against funding cuts. He’s since been reinstated, but it’s a worrisome precedent. Once Google and possibly organizations like the NSA and CIA get a hold of lecture notes on radical Marxism and the history of political revolution, could they end up on the wrong side of the US government’s overly broad surveillance regime?
“I think, ultimately, there’s this kind of surveillance society that can create all kinds of problems. It’s not so much the fear of George Orwell’s 1984; I think this is a more Kafkaesque fear,” Buckingham said. “If you think of all the things that you’ve compiled over the years—take it out of context, and everyone can be guilty of something.”
“I think that’s an example of where peoples’ freedom of speech—to express themselves—in academia can be compromised if data, what they say and write, is distributed in ways they don’t agree to,” he said.
Alison Hearn, the president of the University of Western Ontario Faculty Association (UWOFA), an active member of CAUT, sees Classroom as an extension of private interests into the realm of public education. “It does feel like an imperial move [for Google] to claw its way into the orbit of something we’ve come to think of, in Canada anyway, as something that’s publicly funded and run,” she told me.
“It is another serious indication of the privatization of university education in general. Google gets in there, and offers these platforms and technology. It’s just another example, and a more pernicious one, because of what can be done with the data,” she continued. “Google has been making inroads at the university level; it’s happening a lot in the US, and in Canada it’s happening at various places. So, this has been coming for a while, and it’s been a topic of conversation and some concern for professors.”
We would do well to remember that sometimes “freedom” includes the ability to simply feel free. Without absolute assurance that their files and ideas won’t be tapped by Google or the government, university education could experience a chilling effect. Even if Google isn’t “listening” in on classroom discussions, it can. The fires of discourse could be put out by the mere possibility of being penalized for merely participating.