A Danish City Built Google Into Its Schools—Then Banned It

The small Danish city of Helsingør is not a place usually in national news headlines. Until now, most visitors come here to catch the ferry to nearby Sweden or to visit the castle where Shakespeare’s famous tragedy Hamlet was set. But the news crews arrived with the start of the new school term in August, to capture the chaos caused when local schools banned Google.

Google’s education products—its Chromebook laptops and school software—are deeply embedded in Denmark’s education system. Around half of the country’s schools use Google, and some students in Helsingør get their first Chromebook at the age of 6. So when Helsingør banned those products on July 14, the result was widespread disruption when schools reopened the following month. Some local children complained they were so unused to pen and paper they couldn’t read their own handwriting. Denmark’s data protection regulator found that local schools did not really understand what Google was doing with students’ data and as a result blocked around 8,000 students from using the Chromebooks that had become a central part of their daily education.

This chaos had its roots back in August 2019, when one local 8-year-old approached his father with a problem. One of his classmates, he said, had used the 8-year-old’s YouTube account to write a “very rude” comment under another person’s video, and the son was panicking about the possible consequences. He was worried he would be punished for harassment or become the target of an online revenge campaign.

His father, Jesper Graugaard, was initially confused; he hadn’t set up a YouTube account for his son, and he hadn’t given the school permission to create one either. His family was “proudly analog”; his three children don’t have their own smartphones. So when Graugaard realized that his son (who he declines to name) had a YouTube account that publicly listed his full name, school, and class, he was shocked and immediately contacted his son’s school. Staff there, he says, tried to wave the issue away as a mistake with private filters they could easily fix. Google declined to comment on the specifics of this case but said schools’ IT staff are typically in charge of which Google services students can access.

But Graugaard was not reassured. This stay-at-home dad—who had never before been involved in any kind of activism—embarked on a three-year campaign to fix what he considered to be a major flaw in the relationship between the Danish public school system and Google. It was his official complaint to Denmark’s data protection regulator, Datatilsynet, in December 2019 that inspired the Google ban in Helsingør. And his constant efforts to speak to local media and politicians have helped create one of the biggest debates ever to take place in Denmark about how to protect Danish data and have unleashed growing skepticism about the role of American companies in Europe’s public sector.

The Google ban was partly imposed because the data protection regulator discovered Helsingør never carried out a full risk assessment for Google’s school products before using them, as required under Europe’s GDPR privacy law, according to Allan Frank, IT security specialist at Datatilsynet. Schools that were plunged into chaos by the ban, however, received a respite on September 8, when the ban was suspended for two months, allowing students to keep using their Chromebooks while Helsingør and Google negotiate what happens next.

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