Freedom Denied: When universities force students to surrender to Google

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Most universities make it extremely hard for their students and staff to take care of themselves when interacting with technology. For example, my university relies on two proprietary software packages for student management and learning content management. Those are freedom-disrespecting software hosted on university infrastructure, and as far as we are told, our personal data remains in first-party servers. Right now a student who refuses to use them will not be even allowed to sign-up for courses. But often universities make even worse choices, and the most recent incident is forcing you to use Google Forms lest you want to be excluded from the ERASMUS mobility programme.

A little while ago I received an announcement from the Mobility Office in my university, calling all interested students to apply before a certain date. In the guidelines, it said:

Required paperwork:

  1. Printed Declaration of Interest to be submitted to the Mobility Office

  2. Online Declaration of Interest to be submitted electronically


Submitting the Online Declaration of Interest is obligatory. If the electronic application is not submitted, the printed application will be disregarded

At this point you have to wonder what’s the reason for this redundancy. But before I could think what’s their motivation, I noticed that the Online Declaration is a Google Forms link. There’s a lot of things wrong here. Google Forms is unfree, Google is notoriously problematic as a provider, and more importantly, this is a third-party server they are asking me to surrender highly personal information to – information that is more than enough for someone to attempt identity theft. As an aside, it’s also unnecessary, because the university has some sort of in-house “survey” web application installed.

I sent an email to the Mobility Office, asking them to confirm that interested students can complete this obligatory electronic application without using Google services and agreeing to Google’s Terms of Service, pointing out that forcing students to enter into a contract with a third-party company is an overreach, and suggested that they allow electronic forms to be submitted over email or through a first-party survey application.

The answer I received has the following:

Dear student,

Since you are using the Internet, your data is already exposed.

There’s no other way to submit the electronic application.

You can bring the paperwork at the office and I will personally type your application without you having to use Google Forms since you object to it.

Thank you,

Senior Officer

The Mobility Office

It was a thoroughly disappointing answer. While it’s true that the Internet in general is a privacy nightmare, people can and do take better care of what data they share, and people can and do choose to avoid certain providers like Google for example. The Mobility Office attempts to present a false reality in which there’s no alternative to Google Forms, even though this very same university has an alternative in place. Of course, they also completely missed the other major point of objection, namely having my sensitive personal information in a volatile service like Google’s. Them typing it instead of me might spare me from the unfree software Google uses, and technically exempt me from the Google ToS, but my personal data still leaves the university and sits on a third-party server.

By the time this exchange was over, the application deadline passed, but it doesn’t look like next year things are going to be any different.

PS. At some point I should write about my experience in a course that made using Facebook de-facto (but not de-jure) essential to the course.

Category: Education

Tags: Education, Software, Privacy, Google, University, Erasmus