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About us Policy and strategy A Roadmap to Data Autonomy
Header image Data Autonomy

The Google Rubicon

Date:24 May 2023
Author:Oksana Kavatsyuk

Introduction: no way to avoid Google

The University of Groningen is one of the Dutch universities using Google email and cloud services. This includes services such as Gmail, Calendar, Google-drive, Meet and many more. Once you start working or studying at the University, you automatically agree to use these Google services. There is no way you can avoid that. Students that do not want to use Google cannot study here.

But do we actually know where our emails, calendar appointments and Google-documents are stored? What happens to them? In 2021 the Dutch Personal Data Authority (Autoriteit Persoonsgegevens, AP), concluded that Google’s email and cloud services do not comply with European privacy legislation. Google has put efforts in trying to fix a number of problems. However, even now there are doubts. On 7 March 2023 the Dutch Data Protection Authority (Dutch DPA) recommended to stay alert on privacy issues when using Google applications.

Point of no return?

And now a theoretical question: Are we able to stop using Google if we wish as a university? Or is it already too late and have we passed a point of no return? What will happen if we stop? Do we lose all our emails, documents, contacts? Will we need to pay a lot not to lose documents and data?
We are offered a convenient solution to easily share all possible information with colleagues (and not only). But will it finally be a wise choice? It reminds me of the story of processed food. Fifty years ago, it seemed amazing. But today we know that processed food is unhealthy and usually prefer better alternatives. 

I am teaching at the University College Groningen (UCG), and feel responsible to educate my students in the best way. Should I teach my students to use Google-docs, Google-slides and google their questions (and now we have ChatGPT )? Do students know alternatives? Should they? Do we give them alternatives with UG being a ‘Google university’?

Public values and academic independence

For me, it is not about Google, Microsoft or Amazon Web Services. It is about universities being public institutions. Dutch universities have always been public institutions. Based on public values and academic independence universities ensure there is broad access to higher education and scientific research. The European University Association (EUA) says on its webpage that monitoring and promoting institutional autonomy is a core principle of university governance and advocating academic freedom is the single most important basis for meaningful academic research and teaching.  

Can universities be really independent if currently, there is an increasing dependence on a limited number of dominant market players? Can we still guarantee privacy, security, reliability, transparency, autonomy and democratic control?

Open-source software

It is a principal question of investing in autonomy, sovereignty, and academic freedom. And for Data Autonomy we can and should collaborate with other Dutch universities (for larger initiatives and support), via for example, SURF collaboration. As teachers we should teach our students to use not only commercial software and services but also introduce Open-source software and resources.

For me, Data Autonomy is being achieved when students and teachers are autonomous / independent of vendors and BigTech companies, especially through using Open source software.

About the author

Oksana Kavatsyuk
Oksana Kavatsyuk


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