News broke a few days before Christmas that Slack was deactivating users it believed to have ties to countries sanctioned by the US government, including those of academics in my home province of British Columbia.
Slack closed my account today!
I’m a PhD student in Canada with no teammates from Iran!
Is Slack shutting down accounts of those ethnically associated with Iran?!
— Amir (@a_h_a) December 19, 2018
Since then, Slack has issued a mea culpa stating the deactivation was done accidentally. However, this event highlights the type of risks we take when we outsource our digital work to corporate controlled cloud based web services located outside of Canada.
Slack, a U.S. based company in an attempt to comply with US laws regarding whom corporations can and cannot do business with, turned off access to their service from countries that the U.S. has sanctions against, including Iran, North Korea, and Cuba (whom, it should be pointed out, Canada has quite good relations with).
This should be extremely troubling for everyone, including those who work in higher education. Slack has become a well-used tool with may higher ed communities. To have a company make such a wide sweeping
The attraction to tools like Slack is that they are easy to use. Sign up for an account and off you go. Yes, there is a learning curve to actually use the application, but for the most part the mechanics of running the application are outsourced to Slack, the company. They take care of maintaining the servers, upgrading the application, and providing support for users.
There are alternatives to Slack. Tools that have similar functionality, but are locally hosted on servers that can be maintained and controlled internally. But these do require some effort and support from someone with some technical skills, like an institutional I.T. department.
At BCcampus, we have had good success using RocketChat as a Slack replacement. It is hosted internally on our own servers, meaning we control who has access and where our data is stored. Functionally, it is very similar to Slack.
Another alternative being used in B.C. is Mattermost. The Open EdTech Collaborative has an instance running on Educloud servers hosted here in BC, and, like RocketChat, is similar in functionality to Slack. If you have an email address from a BC post-secondary institution, you can sign up and try out Mattermost through the Open EdTech Collaborative. Ian Linkletter at UBC has done some very good work piloting and then deploying Mattermost at UBC within a teaching & learning context. Ian has also put together a Slack to Mattermost migration guide specific to educators who want to make the switch.
Here in British Columbia, we tend to spend a lot of time considering privacy implications of the educational technologies we use at our institutions. We often focus on where data lives as the data sovereignty clause in our privacy legislation is specific and somewhat unique in our province. As this event clearly illustrates, every time we sign up for a service based outside our borders, we become subject to both the policies of the company that controls the service, and the laws of the country that company operates in. We place our digital fate in their hands.