Many schools have hesitated to adopt Google Apps for their students, citing security and privacy concerns. Gmail, as the core of Google Apps, is a tool that, by it's nature, allows relatively unfettered access to anyone in the world with an email address. Although extensive spam filtering, virus protection, and blacklisting are available through Postini, for some schools and organizations, the risk of inappropriate or dangerous use of email was a significant reason not to use Google Apps.
Today, however, Google announced that it has provided Google Apps administrators with the ability to limit groups of users to internal contact only via email. According to a post on the Google Enterprise blog,
Today, Google Apps administrators can create policies specifying who their users can communicate with over email, and administrators can tailor these policies for different groups of users. For example, school faculty and staff can have unrestricted email access while students have the freedom to send and receive emails within the school community but are protected from unwanted email interactions with outsiders.
For some schools, this is actually an unacceptably restrictive approach. However, given the granularity now available in Google Apps policy and group management, it certainly makes sense for younger students and may allay parental and community concerns as schools increasingly embrace collaboration tools. These tools, while welcomed wholeheartedly by many educators and technologists, make others (including those who pay the bills) uncomfortable. This sort of walled garden approach not only helps protect those who are the most vulnerable, but provides a safety net as parents and decision-makers become accustomed to a greater degree of interaction online.
Interestingly, Google also suggested that Apps users other than schools may find these new policies useful as well:
This "walled garden" approach has been a popular feature request for K-12 schools looking to provide additional safeguards for student email. It can also help businesses where the email access of particular contractors and other groups should be limited.
Whether or not this is an approach your school or organization chooses to take, have the ability and the choice available is an important move for Google Apps.