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Exclusive: Gmail Ditched By Major University

IT executives at the school say Google's commitment to privacy and security doesn't meet their standards.

In a potential blow to Google's efforts to establish itself as a major player in enterprise software, a leading public university has ended its evaluation of Gmail as the official e-mail program for its 30,000 faculty and staff members—and it's got some harsh words for the search giant.

In a joint letter last week to employees, University of California-Davis CIO Peter Siegel, Academic Senate IT chair Niels Jensen, and Campus Council IT chair Joe Kiskis said the school decided to end its Gmail pilot, which could have led to campus-wide deployment, because faculty members doubted Google's ability to keep their correspondences private.

Many faculty "expressed concerns that our campus’s commitment to protecting the privacy of their communications is not demonstrated by Google and that the appropriate safeguards are neither in place at this time nor planned for in the near future,” the letter said.

Google officials, for their part, insisted that their privacy controls are adequate. "Obviously there's lots of opinions and voices on campuses," said Jeff Keltner, a business development manager in the Google Apps for Education group.

"By and large, it's not typical of what we're seeing in the market. We're seeing lots of schools move their students and faculty onto Gmail," said Keltner, who also noted that UC Davis students are continuing to use the service and that Gmail users' privacy is protected by contractual assurances that govern data handling.

But the note, dated April 30, also cited a recent letter to Google CEO Eric Schmidt from the privacy commissioners of ten countries, including Canada, the UK, and Germany—but not the U.S.—that chastised Google for its recent addition of Google Buzz to Gmail. Google Buzz adds social networking tools that the commissioners said compromise user privacy.

Keltner said Google Buzz was not part of the Gmail package under evaluation at UC Davis.

Google rolled out Gmail publicly in 2007. It's part of the Google Apps suite, which also offers Web-based word processing, presentations, and spreadsheet software. With Google Apps, Google is looking to make inroads in the lucrative office software market, which is currently dominated by Microsoft.

Some organizations, including Washington DC's municipal administration, have moved from Microsoft Office to Google Apps, which is priced at $50 per user, per year, and reported savings millions of dollars. Other enterprises, however, have expressed concerns about porting e-mail and other data to Google's cloud, citing concerns similar to those voiced by UC Davis officials.

The UC Davis IT leaders' letter additionally stated that "outsourcing e-mail may not be in compliance with the University of California Electronic Communications Policy." The policy forbids the university from disclosing or examining the contents of e-mails without the account holder's consent, and from distributing e-mails to third parties.

"Though there are different interpretations of these sections, the mere emergence of significant disagreement on these points undermines confidence in whether adopting Google's Gmail service would be consistent with the policy," the letter states.

The letter added that UC Davis plans to continue its search for "a more flexible and effective central e-mail system."

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