Google Lands L.A. E-mail Contract

googlelaAfter almost a year of furious lobbying and jockeying for position, Google earned the right to provide e-mail services for the city of Los Angeles. Microsoft had mounted the fiercest competition, but the city now plans to turn over its e-mail operations to Google by June 2010.

The story, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, reminded me of my own frustrating experiences with an amateurish e-mail system.

When I enrolled at Michigan State University several years ago, I was given a personal e-mail account where all my communications from the school would be sent. It didn’t take long to realize – even though this was waaaay back in 2006 – that the MSU e-mail program was a joke. It lacked a chat feature. It complicated folder organization to the point of frustration. It boasted a spam filter that was about as water-tight as a colander.

In short, I was dissatisfied with the service and wasted no time forwarding all my school e-mails to my existing Gmail account. Many of my fellow students and co-workers at the school paper did the same, and it became a generally accepted practice. Eventually the university improved its e-mail system in an effort to entice students back.

According to the news report, the city of Los Angeles will be making a similar switch on a much larger scale. The city council took a vote and unanimously agreed to outsource its 30,000-person-strong e-mail system to Google. Thus far, L.A. is the biggest city worldwide to make such a switch.

Many government employees living in the Washington, D.C., area have already switched to Gmail for their professional correspondence. Google is currently in the process of developing a “Government Cloud” that could service the entire U.S. government computing system by 2010.

Interestingly enough, Los Angeles City Council members debated their decision for several hours yet no one questioned that a Google-provided system would be more efficient and reliable. The discussion mostly centered on financial matters. In its presentations to the city, Google contended that its service would actually save the city money in the long run. Presumably, that’s money that would otherwise be spent fixing problems with the city’s default system.

The other point of contention was much more interesting, at least to my mind. Google will be storing all of the city’s e-mails on its servers – including criminal records and other sensitive information. If I were a resident of Los Angeles, it would make me slightly nervous to know that so much of the town’s government business has been placed in the hands of a private corporation. It’s important to note that the information will be kept confidential and secure where necessary, but the uneasiness remains.

In an effort to address the security issue, the council voted to add a penalty provision in the event that the city e-mail system is breached. If that were to happen, Google would be forced to compensate the city.

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