ITS delays switch to Gmail

The changeover to Google as Yale’s e-mail provider has been put on hold.

Information Technology Services has decided to postpone the University’s move from the Horde Webmail service to Google Apps for Education, a suite of communication and collaboration tools for universities, pending a University-wide review process to seek input from faculty and students. After a series of meetings with faculty and administrators in February, ITS officials decided to put the move on hold, Deputy Provost for Science and Technology Steven Girvin said.

“There were enough concerns expressed by faculty that we felt more consultation and input from the community was necessary,” he said in an e-mail to the News.

The idea to switch to Google Apps for Education­ — which includes popular programs such as Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Docs — arose during an ITS internal meeting around Christmas, computer science professor Michael Fischer said. After ITS notified faculty members and administrators of the plan in February, several expressed reservations about the move, and ITS officials decided to convene a committee to discuss the situation.

Chuck Powell, the ITS senior director of academic media and technology, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Several members of the committee thought ITS had made the decision to move to Gmail too quickly and without University approval, Fischer said.

“People were mainly interested in technical questions like the mechanics of moving, wondering ‘Could we do it?’ ” he said. “But nobody asked the question of ‘Should we do it?’ ”

Fischer said concerns about the switch to Gmail fell into three main categories: problems with “cloud computing” (the transfer of information between virtual servers on the Internet), technological risks and downsides, and ideological issues.

Google stores every piece of data in three centers randomly chosen from the many it operates worldwide in order to guard the company’s ability to recover lost information — but that also makes the data subject to the vagaries of foreign laws and governments, Fischer said. He added that Google was not willing to provide ITS with a list of countries to which the University’s data could be sent, but only a list of about 15 countries to which the data would not be sent.

“Yale is an international, multicultural community of scholars,” he said. “Students deserve to have rights to their information while on campus.”

But even if all data were kept on American soil, Google’s size and visibility as a company makes it more susceptible to attack from individuals, ranging from hackers to company insiders, Fischer said.

Under the proposed switch, Yale might lose control over its data or could seem to endorse Google corporate policy and the large carbon footprint left by the company’s massive data centers. In addition, Fischer said, Google has a “one size fits all” customer service policy for its Google Apps clients, and the creation of a Google “monoculture” among e-mail users would cause severe problems when the company’s servers experience downtime or crashes.

Deputy Provost Charles Long said last Wednesday that he did not know about the committee’s decision but noted that several faculty members had concerns about communications security under the proposed Google system.

“I thought that students were all on it,” he said. “But there was some concern about its capacity to maintain confidentiality with respect to regulations.”

ITS plans to propose procedures for getting input from the community and making a more informed decision in the coming months, Fischer said.

Originally, ITS had planned to make a gradual transition from Horde to Gmail by next spring, moving current freshmen, sophomores and incoming students to the new system but giving upperclassmen the option to remain with Horde.

But at this point, Fischer estimated, the earliest move to Google Apps for Education could be made in spring of next year, with the class of 2015 being the first to adopt the new system at the beginning of its freshman year.

Google has been at the center of a number of recent controversies relating to privacy, security and intellectual property issues. The introduction of the Google Buzz social networking service in February, which automatically allowed Gmail users to view the contacts of members in their address books, raised concerns among privacy advocates. The company has also come under fire for its censorship of search results, most notably in cooperation with the Chinese government. Google recently reversed its policy, shutting down its Chinese Web site.

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