Over on his blog, Will Richardson has an interesting post on using the power of cloud computing. The comment thread also gets interesting; some responders conflate the idea of cloud computing with the more general notion of web-based tools and Software as a Service, but one of the other issues that gets either overlooked or undervalued is the issue of student and faculty privacy. It's also clear that in some cases, the terms and conditions of these services remain unread or ignored.
I left a version of this post as a comment on the blog, in addition to an earlier comment. As this comment has been caught in the gaping maw of spam prevention for the last 24-36 hours, I figured I'd post it here as well.
One commenter asks whether Google is liable for any data loss.
RE: "Do they (Google) have any liability for lost documents?"
No. See the Terms of Service
Two relevant sections:
"13. Warranty Disclaimer. CUSTOMER UNDERSTANDS AND AGREES THAT EACH SERVICE MAY CONTAIN BUGS, DEFECTS, ERRORS AND OTHER PROBLEMS THAT COULD CAUSE SYSTEM FAILURES. CONSEQUENTLY, THE SERVICE INCLUDING ALL CONTENT, SOFTWARE (INCLUDING ANY UPDATES OR MODIFICATIONS TO THE SOFTWARE), FUNCTIONS, MATERIALS AND INFORMATION MADE AVAILABLE ON OR ACCESSED THROUGH THE SERVICE, AND ANY ACCOMPANYING DOCUMENTATION ARE PROVIDED “AS IS” AND ANY USE THEREOF SHALL BE AT CUSTOMER'S OWN RISK."
"15. Limitation of Liability. IN NO EVENT WILL GOOGLE OR ITS LICENSORS BE LIABLE FOR ANY DIRECT, INDIRECT, SPECIAL, INCIDENTAL, CONSEQUENTIAL, EXEMPLARY OR PUNITIVE DAMAGES, AND INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, DAMAGES FOR INTERRUPTION OF USE OR FOR LOSS OR INACCURACY OR CORRUPTION OF DATA, LOST PROFITS, OR COSTS OF PROCUREMENT OF SUBSTITUTE GOODS OR SERVICES, HOWEVER CAUSED (INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO USE, MISUSE, INABILITY TO USE, OR INTERRUPTED USE) AND UNDER ANY THEORY OF LIABILITY, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO CONTRACT OR TORT AND WHETHER OR NOT GOOGLE WAS OR SHOULD HAVE BEEN AWARE OR ADVISED OF THE POSSIBILITY OF SUCH DAMAGE REGARDLESS OF WHETHER ANY REMEDY SET FORTH IN THIS AGREEMENT FAILS OF ITS ESSENTIAL PURPOSE; OR FOR ANY CLAIM ALLEGING INJURY RESULTING FROM ERRORS, OMISSIONS, OR OTHER INACCURACIES IN THE SERVICE OR DESTRUCTIVE PROPERTIES OF THE SERVICE."
The convenience of the service is also mentioned.
RE: "As soon as we go to Google Apps, all our students will have a similar conventional email address so all students will be able to use Docs, Calendar, GTalk, Reader, Sites, etc. in a collaborative way."
This type of comprehensive user experience makes an ideal terrain for data mining. One user ID can be tied to chat content, email content, various documents (both created and read) and links followed from all these documents. Additional mining can include looking at groups of students, and student surfing behavior based on time of day. This is advertising gold, and it gives some amazingly useful information about a coveted advertising demographic.
For a cautionary tale on privacy, see this post that goes over the recent Viacom suit against Google, and lays out some of the privacy implications. Imagine that a media company has detected copyright violations coming from within a district. Then, read the article linked above. Substitute "Google Apps for Education" for "youtube." Then, imagine your district's cost savings vaporizing faster than you can say, "I wish we had invested in our own infrastructure" as gaggles of lawyers flood your district. For extra fun, imagine the lawsuit involves students under the age of 13. Considering that you can sign into YouTube with your Google ID, it's conceivable that many students would use their school account for their personal video use.
Seriously, folks. Think long term, just for a second. We don't encourage our students to cut corners. We should have the same expectations for our critical infrastructure. Open source virtualization options exist; these options would deliver some of the same advantages of cloud computing, but without selling out student and faculty privacy as the price of convenience.
Update: My comment has been freed from the moderation queue, and the conversation continues.