Where The Sidewalk Ends: Wading Through Googles Terms of Service for Education

11 min read

Google Apps for Education has been very popular in K12 and higher ed. The service is free, and Google makes some carefully phrased claims about how Apps for Edu does not show ads to users within the core suite of Apps. These claims are often repeated with less nuance by consultants who have been certified to train schools and districts on using Google Apps. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the reality doesn't live up to the sound bite. In this post, we will examine the loopholes that permit data collected from students with Google Apps accounts to be used for non-educational purposes.

Google has five main issues that complicate absolute claims about what Google does or doesn't do with data collected from people within Google Apps for Edu.

We'll get into more detail in this post, but the tl;dr version runs like this:

Google defines a narrow set of applications as "core" Apps for Edu services. These services are exempt from having ads displayed alongside user content, and from having their data used for "Ads purposes". However, apps outside the core services - like YouTube, Blogger, and Picasa - are not covered by the terms of service that restrict ads. The same is true for integrations of third party apps that can be enabled within the Google Apps admin interface, and then accessed by end users. So, when a person in a Google Apps for Edu environment watches a video on YouTube, writes or reads a post on Blogger, or accesses any third party app enabled via Google Apps, their information is no longer covered under the Google Apps for Education terms.

To put it another way: as soon as a person with a Google Apps for Education account strays outside the opaque and narrowly defined "safe zone" everything they do can be collected, stored, and mined.

So, the next time you hear someone say, "Google apps doesn't use data for advertising" ask them to explain what happens to student data when a student starts in Google apps, and then goes to Blogger, or YouTube, or connects to any third party integration.

Background

Google has been making a concerted effort to improve its privacy practices in education. In early 2014, it came to light that Google was data mining email in education products. This was followed up a few months later by the announcement that Google would no longer display ads in core Google Apps, and would no longer scan emails in Apps for EDU.

This shifted practice appears to be the origin of the claim that "Google doesn't collect any data on students." This post by Tracy Mitrano gives a more detailed overview and background.

There's A Hole In The Bucket

In an earlier post last week, I explored some basic issues with even finding the Google Apps for Edu terms of service. In that post, I also outlined some quick and easy fixes for some of the more basic problems.

One of the problems identified in the earlier post has been fixed in the last week: the link to the page that outlines the core services now actually points to the correct location. The list of apps covered under the core Apps for Edu terms includes Gmail, Calendar, Drive, Hangouts, Sites, Contacts, Groups, and Google Apps Vault.

The list of additional services not included and covered under Edu terms includes Blogger, YouTube, Maps, Custom Search, Picasa, and Web History.

So, if a school using Google Apps for Edu wanted to do a unit on digital citizenship and time management and use Web History as a teaching tool, the only way to do that would be to throw student data into Google's normal terms of service, where student data could be mined and sold.

Additionally, while Google's specific terms for edu state that search data would not be scanned for "Ads purposes" it looks like searches via any custom search appliance would be scanned and mined. I'd love to get clarification from within Google on how data in custom searches is handled.

When the administrator of a Google Apps for Education instance enables non-core services covered by different terms of service, it's not particularly clear to admins that different terms apply.

When end users access these services, they do it under the umbrella of their Google Apps account. From an end user perspective, it doesn't make sense that these services would be under different terms, and the login process does nothing to highlight that users are entering a different part of Google's corner of the web, governed by different rules. We go into additional detail on how this works later in this post.

Integration with Third Party Apps

The issues outlined above for non-Core apps are worse for third party integrations available through the Marketplace.

Third party integrations are enabled by admins within the Google Apps Admin console. Once these apps are enabled, users within the Google Apps domain can access these additional software packages. "Integration" usually starts with single sign on and a common identity between the Google Apps domain and the third party vendor, but it could potentially also cover sharing contacts and other data. It's not always clear and obvious to Google Apps admins that they are creating an environment where learner data is flowing to third party vendors. Additionally, when a learner or teacher accesses an app that has been enabled via Google apps, it feels like part of a unified experience. It's a great user experience, but it's a data privacy nightmare. Because the integration is clean, it feels like part of the same system, which implies that the same rules would be in place.

However, every time a learner accesses a third party app via their Apps for Edu account, their data flows to the third party vendor, and is governed by the terms set by that vendor. Google's rules no longer apply.

Let's Talk About "Ads Purposes"

In their education-specific terms of service, Google makes the following statement about data and ads:

Claim of no ads

1.4 Ads. Google does not serve Ads in the Services or use Customer Data for Ads purposes.

This statement sounds pretty good. Google doesn't serve ads.

However, it's worth remembering that not serving ads is not the same as not processing or mining data. You can mine data, and derive benefit from what you learn in the process, without serving ads. It's also unclear what exactly "Ads purposes" means - it is vague to the point of meaningless. Google could improve this individual issue in two ways. First, they could define exactly what they mean when they say, "Ads purposes." Second, they could define exactly how they process data collected within the core Apps for Edu suite, and how they use that data.

In section 2.2, Google buries a reference to Non-Google Apps Products in the Compliance section (emphasis added):

Non-Google Apps terms

2.2 Compliance. Customer will use the Services in accordance with the Acceptable Use Policy. Google may make new applications, features or functionality for the Services available from time to time, the use of which may be contingent upon Customer's agreement to additional terms. In addition, Google will make other Non-Google Apps Products (beyond the Services) available to Customer and its End Users in accordance with the Non-Google Apps Product Terms and the applicable product-specific Google terms of service. If Customer does not desire to enable any of the Non-Google Apps Products, Customer can enable or disable them at any time through the Admin Console.

By burying the concept of Non-Google Apps Products, Google makes this element of the Apps for Education terms unnecessarily complicated.

In section 16 of the terms, Google lists out nearly fifty separate definitions, including this one:

Link from section 16

"Non-Google Apps Product Terms" means the terms found at the following URL: http://www.google.com/apps/intl/en/terms/additional_services.html, or such other URL as Google may provide from time to time.

So, for those playing along at home, Google starts with an absolute statement in section 1. They undercut that statement in section 2. They then provide the link to the actual terms in section 16, but the link is buried within nearly 50 other definitions.

When we follow the link to the Non-Google Apps Product Terms, the first point finally spells out the condition that allows user data from within Google Apps for Education to leak into more permissive terms of service:

Not covered. At all.

Not Subject to Google Apps Agreement. The Additional Services are not governed by the Google Apps Agreement, but are governed only by the applicable service-specific Google terms of service.

After knitting together related clauses from three different sections of the terms of service, and following a link to a completely separate set of terms, we finally see that the terms make a clear distinction between core Apps for Education, and everything else. However, because all of these apps appear in the Admin Panel of Google Apps for Edu, and in many cases the person administering Google Apps is not the person in charge of vetting terms for Google Apps, this difference is, at best, unclear.

So What Does All This Mean, Again?

We've covered a fair amount of ground in this post, and gotten deep in the weeds in Google's policies. The way the policies are written, it seems like one clear absolute is that ads will not be displayed alongside user content.

It's not entirely clear, however, what Google does do with any data collected from the core apps within Google Apps for Education.

It is also clear that as soon as a student or teachers leaves the narrowly defined limits of core Google apps, their data is up for grabs to be used for advertising, or any other purpose defined in Google's general terms of service. Unless a Google Apps for Education account is set up in an incredibly locked down setup, it's hard to see how learners can avoid - or even know - where their information is going, and the terms under which it is being used.

But the clear takeaway: as soon as a learner strays outside the core Google Apps offerings, their data can be used for a range of non-educational purposes.

Suggested Improvements

There are a range of ways that Google's terms for education could be improved. The suggestions here are the tip of the iceberg, and ONLY address the issues that make it difficult to understand exactly what Google is doing. Once Google has improved the readability and transparency of their terms, we could go into more detail on specific ways that the terms can be improved to protect student privacy.

To improve some of the issues listed here, Google should:

  • Explain exactly how learner data will be scanned within the core Apps for Edu purchases;
  • Extend the education terms of service for all other Google apps that aren't currently covered as part of the Core apps suite. If there are applications that Google owns where this is not possible, they should be removed from the free offering list and treated like any other third party integration;
  • For third party integrations and Google products that use a different terms of service, add a step into the process for Google Apps domain admins that highlights and explains that all end users will be sending data to a third party, to be covered under different terms;
  • On a regular basis (every three to six months?), Google should email an apps report to the purchaser of the domain and all domain admins summarizing the enabled apps, and which ones fall outside Google's core Apps for education. This way, unused apps could be pruned, and in the case of staff turnover, the existing setup could be reviewed. This would also allow domain admins the chance to review privacy policies and terms of enabled apps within the domain.

There are a host of other things that could be done that include editing the terms of service for clarity. However, the issues highlighted in this post provide some easy starting points.