Educational organizations agreements with Google: the Uruguayan case

by Digital Rights LAC on August 24, 2023

On May 22nd, 2015, Plan Ceibal (the Uruguayan implementation of the OLPC project, one laptop per student) and Google signed an agreement by which all the students (from the public and private system) and teachers from all the country could access, free of charge and with unlimited capacity, to email services (Gmail), cloud hosting (Google Drive) and educational software (Google Apps for Education).

By Ismael Castagnet Lacuesta*

This agreement was announced by the government with fanfare and widely diffused in the Uruguayan media. Several newspaper articles (most of them, without attribution) proclaimed about a “qualitative leap in the Uruguayan education”, cited Google Apps for Education as “the school of the 21st century”, and pointed out that this was the first step to an agreement that “will allow to keep working in the extension of the services offered to education”.

In November of 2014, the Latam Business Development Manager for Google for Education (“a series of free tools to teach and learn”), Jim Ballentine, had visited the facilities of the Plan Ceibal “to boost cooperation agreements”.

Since the first day of joining the agreement, emails started to move along among teachers, researchers and free culture activists, trying to get more information and questioning various aspects of this kind of agreements. That’s how we wrote an open letter warning the Uruguayan citizens and simultaneously setting out several questions to the educational authorities and the national government, and we started to collect signatures to support the letter.

The way the decision was made was questioned: the education community was not consulted, the lack of information about the coverage of the agreement, the lack of educational basis, the fact that in many of the existing laptops given to the Uruguayan children (there are several models) the Google Apps for Education cannot be run (which makes us suspicious about the interest of buying Google laptops in future bids), etcetera. There were also mentioned examples of failure in agreements of this kind from Google, and the lack of seriousness from both Google authorities and Plan Ceibal itself when they had to answer about the questioning on user’s data privacy.

The letter poses that “the technology is not neutral, it implies a choice of principles and it has consequences that go beyond on their gratuity or functionality”, an aspect that we consider of vital importance, since we daily face a hegemonic discourse where they want us to believe that technological advancements are good by themselves, without thinking in other aspects such as why, what for, how or whom.

At the same time, it is suspicious that the announcement of many free benefits (reminding us of expressions such as beware the Greeks when they come bearing gifts). Considering the visit from the manager of the Google for Education business development, we have all the right to suspect that there is something more than a disinterested collaboration from the multinational company of information. The question is: Where is the business for Google here?

We started to look out for similar agreements and we only found a few precedents: the agreement with the state of Baja California (Mexico) on last May; punctual agreements with universities in different countries, and the agreement to register archeological monuments in Peru. We concluded that this was the first time  in the world that an agreement of these attributes was signed, involving all the country’s students and teachers. Since there’s no such thing as coincidence, we have the right to suppose this agreement is an experiment to be applied, in case of success, in the rest of Latin American countries or other regions in the planet.

In this letter we propose to study the possibility for the Uruguayan public bodies to provide similar tools as the ones Google has. We asked about the control the Uruguayan authorities have on the contents hosted by Google servers outside the national jurisdiction (out of reach for the Uruguayan justice). We expose the risk that the Uruguayan education policies end up depending on the multinational (and being determined by it). Finally we ask to reconsider the decision on singing the agreement and to set up the largest discussion possible about this subject.

Fortunately, we had a broad impact with this letter. We had appearances in radio, TV and written press from national and international media. There was a teacher’s assembly on the School of Engineering’s Institute of Computer Science from the Universidad de la República, which decided to ask for hearings from all the legislators of the different political parties to pose our concerns. We coordinated actions with the unions of education, student’s organizations, and civil society related to free culture as Creative Commons Uruguay, DATA, Derecho a la Cultura and CESoL (Centro de Estudios de Software Libre; Free Software Studies Center).

The highest body of the Universidad de la República expressed its deep concern about the mentioned agreement without the required prior discussion. The Dean called for a meeting with the authorities from the National Administration of Public Education, the Plan Ceibal, ANTEL (a public telecommunication operator, the biggest of the country), the Agency of e-Government and Information Society (AGESIC) and the National Research and Innovation Agency, among others, to discuss this subject.

At that meeting it was agreed to put the agreement with Google on hold (this related to students, since the teachers can already enter the platform) until the School of Engineering and ANTEL submit an alternative proposal about the use of computing resources for education within a month, under the premise that those systems will be hosted in national territory.

​There are many aspects by which an agreement like this can be questioned, from educational and pedagogical aspects to the commercial ones; those referred to the citizen’s rights of data privacy and even political issues to take into account. In these days we have experienced the jokes from some journalists that ask us why Google would want to save the homework, pictures and videos from Uruguayan students. This shows the short-sighted approach of those “journalists” about the technological-political global reality.

Those Uruguayan students who save trivial information in the multinational’s cloud today will become the future workers, union members, entrepreneurs and Uruguayan politicians. Within two or three decades they will be the vital force of our country and if this agreement still remains, it will mean that Google will know everything about our citizens, from their educational background to their contacts in every stage of their lives, their political thoughts; even personal information that not even their closest friends know, and that each citizen has the right to keep it in secret. The uses of that information are almost limitless (I insist, the data from all citizens from a country) to get economic and even political benefits.

We are told that Google already owns all our data, that they do not need us to give it to them and that they can use it whenever they want. That is half-truth, since even though they already have it, they cannot use it with any means; and in the case of an eventual infringement (it will not be the first time the multinational goes under trial for these reasons in different regions of the world), the accusers will have to face it in USA courts and fight against all the media and economic power that Google has. The choice of hosting the citizen’s data in local servers is evidently a safer option.

Another answer we got was that Google commits to not use the data from the Uruguayan students with commercial purposes. This leads us to suspect the final purposes of the multinational are different, as we previously supposed. If we learned anything from Edward Snowden’s revelations is that all “free” software that multinationals offer has backdoors for the USA secret services so they can spy on us. They do this de facto, regardless of legal coverage.

Well, let us make things complicated for the Big Brother! If they want to have our information, they should (at least) hack our own systems. Amongst other things, because if they do it and we can detect it, they could be judged in our countries and by our judicial systems, and that is something.

*Ismael Castagnet Lacuesta es the President de CESoL Uruguay.

Image: (CC BY-NC-SA) Pablo Britos / Flickr