We rely on e-mail for almost everything. It is a means for organizing events, raising awareness, communicating official announcements and has become a constant presence in every member of the Yale community’s life. As such, radical changes to this system, such as the recently reported potential switch to a system hosted by Google, deserve full debate. Though the Gmail-based system may confer many advantages, it does not excuse the opacity that has characterized the transition process so far. The level of frustration with Yale’s current e-mail service is undeniably high — many students long for something better, and Gmail is one possibility. The substantial fraction of undergraduates who currently forward their Yale e-mail to a Gmail account will likely welcome a transition to Gmail. But even if many students will welcome Gmail, such a dramatic change should only happen as part of a transparent process with open dialogue including all stakeholders.
The current picture of the proposed transition leaves many crucial questions unanswered.
We understand that Google will not be charging the University, for instance, but we wonder what Google is getting in return for their generosity — besides access to our e-mail, that is. Without a transparent planning processes, in which students can ask questions like these, it is difficult not to be at least a little suspicious.
Students who use Gmail for their Yale e-mail are currently making individual choices, are free to weigh their concerns against Gmail’s manifest benefits. Indeed, we chose to write this piece using Google Docs. When Gmail takes over the entire student e-mail system, however, these individual concerns rightly become concerns of the institution. The collective worries of faculty, staff and students therefore should be addressed before Yale officially commits to Gmail.
And for all the benefits of Gmail, there are some very real concerns. As students, we need to know that Yale has signed a contract with Google guaranteeing certain provisions. Right now, the transition to Gmail depends on Google’s generosity to provide this service without cost or advertisements. If Google decides to charge in the future, what are the ramifications for Yale? We have not heard how much control, if any, ITS and the University will have over backups, data security and migration. We don’t know where the Gmail servers will be located and what privacy protections legally apply in that jurisdiction. At Brown, for instance, mail can be stored in “datacenters outside the borders of the United States” according to the university’s Web site. In addition, no one has told us how much access Google and its data mining algorithms will have to Yale e-mail. Even if Google and ITS do have all the answers, we are entitled to at least ask the questions.
In addition, Google is fallible. Over the last eight months, Gmail has experienced six outages, some of them prolonged. And Google’s only compensation — even for paying customers — is free days of service. What mechanisms does Yale have in place to deal with the outages? Moreover, how can we be sure that Gmail won’t accidentally put e-mail into the wrong inboxes, as it did during the Brown University Gmail transition?
Only a transparent process will let students know. That is why we call on the administration to establish an open dialogue before ITS commits to a timeline for outsourcing the e-mail of current and future students. Even if it is a forgone conclusion that Yale will make the switch, there is no compelling reason to draw the curtains and shut out the concerns of the people that will use the system every day. E-mail is simply too important for secrecy. With Lux et Veritas as its motto, Yale should understand the value of shedding light on the change.
Christian Csar and Francesca Slade are the co-presidents of Yale Undergraduate Computing Organization and seniors in Silliman and Pierson Colleges, respectively. Adi Kamdar is a sophomore in Calhoun College and the president of Yale Students for Free Culture.