‘Dependency on software giants jeopardises academic freedom’

Universities embrace data hungry software giants. This negatively impacts academic freedom, say TU Delft researchers. “We are pushing students into the arms of Big Tech.”

More and more scientific data end up in the clouds of big tech companies. (Photo: Inria)

Online lessons, digital meetings, video calling and co-working in the cloud. The corona pandemic has exposed our dependency on large technology companies, assert experts in data and technology policy Tobias Fiebig and Seda Gürses, both of the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management. With colleagues, among which from the Technical University of Vienna, they recently published an article on the scientific preprint site arXiv in which they warn of the dangers.

The dependency jeopardises the privacy of students and researchers, and academic freedom as a whole, the researchers write in their article entitled Heads in the clouds: measuring the implications of universities migrating to public clouds.

Delta spoke to Gürses and Fiebig on the education platform BigBlueButton (BBB).

Why do we use BBB, instead of Microsoft Teams for instance?
Fiebig: “It is an open source, non-profit platform which does not have the intention of monetizing user data. Furthermore, it is designed as an education platform.
I understand why Teams is preferred by some people at TU Delft. It was designed as a corporate communication tool, so it is very useful for all sorts of administrative purposes. It may be better integrated into administrative work-flows. The same goes for Zoom. Using these programs normalizes a controlled administrative environment as the environment in which we do education. Universities’ administration is highly centralised in the Netherlands, the US and the United Kingdom. You see that these programmes are often used by universities in these countries.”

Is that bad?
Gürses: “Universities should take considered decisions about the software companies they work with. My concern is that conditions of education change, and with that the sustainability of the university, due to technical, financial and governance dependencies. If we use their programmes, we need to incorporate precautionary measures. The way it is going now, the risk is that the universities pass on the data of students and researchers to the tech industry and they then fall prey to advertisers. It also means that we are pushing our students into the arms of the technology giants. They will then not familiarise themselves with other systems.
The issue has been around for a while, even before corona. Take the digital learning environment Brightspace that TU Delft uses. The data on it is processed by Amazon in Ireland. Students have to accept a violation of their privacy if they want an education. In this case, there is no such thing as informed consent, as there is no feasible way of opting out.”

‘There are major changes in how universities worldwide organise and pay for their IT’

In your article you talk about the zoomification of universities by which you mean the never ending influence of Big Tech. Big Tech has been highly influential in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the US for years. At least since 2015. You went back to 2015 in your research. In Germany, France, Austria and Switzerland universities often do not let these companies in. How can you explain the difference between the countries?
Gürses: “You may disagree a lot with Charles de Gaulle, but he had foresight that dependency in computing would impact the sovereignty of governments and institutions. He believed that France should be independent in the area of automation. The country has Inria (Institut de Recherche en Informatique et en Automatique), the French national research institution for automation, to thank for this. Inria was a product of De Gaulle’s move to ensure France had its own computational capacity, something that might explain why France was less effected by the move to the cloud prior to and during Covid. The country has a very strong tradition in free and open source software.”

Fiebig: “Every country has its own story. Take Germany for example. Universities there have also handed over – but far less-  to American Big Tech. The universities there are less centralised than in the Netherlands, and follow an academic self-governance approach. There are many university-data centres offering self-hosted digital support to institutions.”

Is awareness of the risks growing in the Netherlands?
Fiebig: “I think so. It is a troublesome subject. You can hardly blame the universities. People usually act with the best intentions. Universities are easily led by companies that offer them free services or sell services through subscriptions that seem to be cheap, but often are not.
Look at what happened at the University of Washington. The University could use the Google cloud unlimited and for free, it was told. But when the researchers had up to 6,4 petabyte in the cloud suddenly they had to pay. Moving all the data to another provider is expensive. So there you are, with your back against the wall. And this is made worse if a university has downsized its own IT department. We see this happening more and more. There are major changes in how universities worldwide organise and pay for their IT. We need to look much more closely at the powers at play.”

Gürses: “One thing is certain and that is that Big Tech is gaining influence in the academic world. And universities need to be aware of this. It may also be good to note that building your own IT again would take years, meaning this may be difficult to reverse if and when the downsides of the cloud become more apparent.”

Editor Tomas van Dijk

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