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Google Reverses on Scanning Student Emails as W.H. Expresses Concern

Google only recently announced it will stop scanning students’ email accounts for advertising purposes. This comes as a new White House report on ‘big data’ says “The federal government must ensure that privacy regulations protect students against having their data being shared or used inappropriately, especially when the data is gathered in an educational context.”

Google Apps for Education provides students, teachers and administrators with access to Gmail accounts, calendars and cloud storage for their coursework. Google has been scanning the contents of the accounts, gathering information it could use to target ads to the same students. According to the Wall Street Journal and Education Week magazine, “such activity may violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a law that protects educational records.”

Despite Google’s previous promise that it would not scan emails through Google Apps for Education, the company yet again misled its customers about its actions, recently admitting it ‘scans and indexes’ the emails for a variety of purposes.

This is the latest in a long string of examples showing a disparity between Google’s promises to respect the rights of consumers and its actual practices. Google has repeatedly shown it cannot be trusted to keep to its commitments to  governments and its legal obligations to respect consumer protection and competition laws. Previously, the company has been fined for assisting in the illegal sale of prescription drugs online and hacking in to people’s personal information through their web browser, violating its privacy settlement over Google Buzz with the Federal Trade Commission within a year.

Now, Google continues to mine its other users for data through Gmail and other Google products and services, with the ultimate goal of selling advertising. The latest news about Google’s scanning of student data further undermines the potential to trust Google on any new commitments it might offer to settle the European Commission’s antitrust probe that has identified multiple concerns that the company’s practices violate EU competition laws.

Any new Google commitments to the European Commission should come with a strong oversight and enforcement mechanism to ensure that the company does not once again violate its commitments or act in ways that are not clear to consumers.