Google has agreed to stop scanning emails on around 30 million accounts used by students and teachers. It follows Microsoft offering a special version of Bing for schools that cuts out ads and other commercial results.
The new policy will affect any emails on accounts using Google Apps for Education. That’s a free service but, compared with ordinary free Gmail, offers extra features similar to those found in the business-based Google Apps.
Email through Google Apps for Education was already ad-free, but Google did scan the content of messages and add them to databases about the online activity of individual users. Google said that although it had the technical ability to use this data to affect ads the users saw elsewhere online, it did not do so. Now it’s decided to stop the scanning altogether.
The move follows a lawsuit filed in March by a student group, based largely on the idea that such scanning could violate the 1974 Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which governs the handling of data about students under 18.
That lawsuit hasn’t got anywhere yet. It was part of a failed attempt to combine multiple lawsuits based on Gmail scanning into a single class action case. A judge rejected that on the grounds that the various cases didn’t have enough similarities. While that ruling doesn’t dismiss any of the cases as legally invalid, it was a major practical blow and means some or all of the cases may prove financially unviable to pursue.
For its part, Google says the decision to stop scanning educational accounts has nothing to do with the legal action.
Google isn’t alone in revising the way it handles advertising on services used by students. Microsoft recently announced a national rollout for “Bing in the Classroom”, a version of the search engine available to all K12 schools.
The schools version not only block paid ads, but also some results pointing to commercial organizations’ websites. It also includes filters for teachers to block particular types of content.
There’s no charge for using the schools version of Bing and in fact Microsoft is offering free Surface tablets based on how many searches students carry out. Those of a more cynical nature have speculated Microsoft may be looking to get students into the habit of using Bing from an early age (and shift a few unsold tablets.)