The academic institution I work for (Case Western Reserve University) has begun the transition from using an internally-maintained email and calendaring system to one hosted by Google, called Google Apps. The question that came to mind when I thought about the differences between an in-house vs. a third party email solution was “who owns that email?”
Why should that matter, though? Well, it matters in cases where the university needs to have access to those emails for legal reasons (someone filing suit against an individual at the university or the university itself). With a personal Gmail account, a court order to search someone’s email account would have to be approved before Google would hand over the keys to one of its users’ accounts. That can put a hamper on investigating the allegations (at least from the standpoint of the university’s internal investigation).
So I wondered, does Gmail take ownership of the email it handles? Or do the individuals who sign up for the account? Or the university or other organization that uses Google Apps? Well, this is a distilled version of Google’s legal philosophy, found by searching on Google, coincidentally:
Google does not claim any ownership in any of the content, including any text, data, information, images, photographs, music, sound, video, or other material, that you upload, transmit or store in your Gmail account. We will not use any of your content for any purpose except to provide you with the Service.
So, what about Google Apps? How does Google handle the relationship between the End Users who will actually sign up for their Google Apps accounts and the entity under which those accounts are created (i.e. the university, corporation, or other entity)? Taking a look at the Terms of Agreement for the Google Apps service provides some detail:
Essentially, Google cedes ownership of all content sent through or stored in their system to the “system administrator” that an organization appoints. The email belongs to the institution, not the individual. Businesses pay to have someone else do all the heavy lifting of email IT infrastructure, while paying a reasonable fee for the service. Educational institutions get an even better deal. Colleges and universities can setup Google Apps accounts for all its users for FREE.
Is Google just being really generous here? Partly. Most of Google’s revenue comes from search advertising. But there’s a reason for Google to offer free email accounts to educational institutions. One word: Eyeballs. The more users signed up for Gmail, the more eyeballs that will be viewing the inconspicuous text ads woven into the Gmail interface. So while Google does front a lot of technological infrastructure and maintenance to its Google Apps users, it also turns a profit on the advertisements it inserts into the Gmail interface.
So, it appears as though a Google Apps account doesn’t differ significantly from an in-house email system after all. A comforting thought, considering I’ll be assisting numerous staff and faculty members make the switch. Knowing that the email ownership paradigm will remain the same even under the new email system.