It’s no coincidence that the ads students are given match their interests and personal taste. A Gmail user who emails something about gardening, for example, will be shown ads regarding gardening at some point. Google feels that if they are going to be showing ads to users, they might as well be useful to them. In order to find out what users like, Google has algorithms that scan email accounts to influence ads. It’s a controversial practice, but changes are being made after a recent lawsuit in California.
Google admitted during court proceedings that it had scanned the email accounts of students who attended schools and universities that used Google’s Apps for Education. Google claimed that it never used the gathered information for advertising purposes, but that didn’t stop students from filing a lawsuit last year regarding the issue.
The lawsuit claims that Google’s activity violates state and federal privacy laws since the students are under the age of 18. In particular, Google had violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) that ensures the privacy of records for students under 18. Google has acknowledged that it can no longer collect or use data from Apps for Education and that the privacy policies on the app have changed.
More specifically, Google stated on their enterprise blog that they permanently deleted the enable/disable toggle for ads. If, for whatever reason, students had turned the toggle on to be shown ads, they no longer have the ability to do so. Second, Google has removed all ads that scan the app, which means no information can be collected or used for advertising purposes.
But that’s not all.
In addition to education-related changes, Google is also planning on making the same amendments to all customers who use the free version of the app, from business to government to legacy users. Google states that it will provide a complete update when the rollout is finished. While this small change doesn’t address advertising as a whole, it’s a step in the right direction, especially for students who have additional protection under FERPA. It also reminds Google that, despite their omnipresent status, users are aware of their rights regarding online privacy.