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KC Wednesday – Privacy Rights and the Digital World: No Free Rides

by on April 5, 2012

NASPA Region II starts a new series this week called “KC Wednesday”. Each Wednesday, a member of one of our Knowledge Communities will share a post related to that knowledge area. Our first comes from William Petrick, Complex Director at Richard Stockton College and Region II’s representative on the Technology Knowledge Community

The digital landscape has been rocked over the past couple of years with stories on the role of privacy when dealing with user information by online companies. Most notable until recently has always been the access, storage and usage of information by social media companies such as Facebook. However, during the past couple of months the shift in the company policy of Google and the changes that have been implemented, have shifted to conversation and possibly the future relationship between users and online service providers.

Google has not traditionally been viewed as a social media website. Services such as the Google+ social media platform are more recent developments. Fundamentally, Google has resided in the services genre of web companies, providing search engine and email service. As they have expanded and picked up other companies, Google has spread out into social media and related services such as Google+, photo sharing, video chats, and more. As Google continues to grow into a larger and larger company, it must demonstrate that it has value to add to one of its core sources of revenue: advertising. To do this Google will use personal data to focus advertising and targeted services for their users. If this isn’t appealing for you, Google says just don’t log in.

The major problem is that Google services have become substitutes for traditional services, such as email provided by internet service providers (ISPs), and for years users have assumed that their information was safe. Education has been one of the industries that have supported the shift. There are many schools out there switching to Google services; Google even supports Universities with specific apps and service development. With the heavy reliance on Google services, critics of the privacy changes ask the question if it is even possible to unplug from services such as Google? Even if it is, will other companies follow the path and what information exactly will become available for Google to use?

On the other side of the coin, the argument is being made that these services are free, which the users are benefiting from, and that requires the companies to find other sources of revenue. This has been a trend in the digital world: people don’t want to pay for things. Email has been, for almost a decade, a service that people could sign up and use for free. Providing this service is far from free for the companies. Companies such as Google have to manage massive server farms, pay programmers to write code, and invest in constant development and expansion. In order to do this, companies must have revenue. In the absence of monthly fees, membership dues, or service contracts, companies have sought out advertising. As internet advertising has become cheaper, companies such as Google look to use the massive amounts of user data in order to charge a premium for custom designed advertising services.

The battle between providing low cost and secure services to members while being able to run a business and earn revenue, will have an incredible impact on higher education moving forward. The rush to adapt low cost measures has caused some institutions to move into services provided by companies like Google. Many institutions are connected via Facebook. The question now becomes what information belonging to the institution is now owned and used by these companies? In addition and importantly for the future role these organizations will play in higher education is how future agreements and usage will be impacted if it is known ahead of time that the personal information being provided to the service company is not necessarily staying there.

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From → KC Wednesday, Tech

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