University of Wisconsin officials are considering transferring student e-mail accounts to a free service provider.

Following the example set by universities like Arizona State and Northwestern, UW is currently investigating whether it would be worthwhile outsourcing student e-mail accounts to a company like Google, Microsoft or Yahoo, all of which currently offer free services.

Division of Information Technology spokesperson Brian Rust said in addition to being free, services like Hotmail or Google?s Gmail provide more storage space per account, operate with more speed and have better user interfaces than UW?s WiscMail system.

However, Rust said Google owns the content passed through its users? accounts, and this leads to privacy concerns. Some university related e-mails contain protected student documents and sensitive materials the university does not want viewed by outside parties.

UW journalism professor Dietram Scheufele said Google analyzes the content of its e-mails and frequency of sent e-mails for marketing purposes.

?It?s the perfect marketing tool,? he said.

Scheufele said people should be aware their information can be analyzed and used to market products to them. He said he has a Gmail account by choice but added it is a different matter entirely to force students to use these providers and risk their privacy.

?People need to be informed consumers on this,? Scheufele said.

Rust agreed with Scheufele and said privacy and security issues would need to be addressed before UW enters into an agreement with any provider. Rust said he has heard allegations about reports of Gmail not claiming responsibility for losing users? mail, folders and even accounts.

While other services provide more storage space than the 200 megabytes provided by WiscMail, only a very small percentage of students actually use all the available space, Rust said. In addition, students can also purchase extra space from the university for $20 per year per gigabyte.

?Nobody asks whether students need, or want, more space,? Rust said.

According to Rust, UW would still have to operate the faculty e-mail system. He added UW is responsible for its faculty and staff correspondence and would not outsource their accounts.

Rust said the savings per year of outsourcing student e-mail would end up being relatively low, because there is already an e-mail system in place, and the cost to incrementally add users is very low.

UW would save about $114,000 annually, Rust said, adding UW has not received savings analyses from any of the universities that have made the switch.

Rust said the savings would not be in the millions and might not be worth the hassle. In addition, he added UW ran some student focus groups over winter break and WiscMail received positive reviews.

?We?re not in a desperate situation to change our mail system,? Rust said. ?What problem are we trying to solve??

Rust added UW is even expanding WiscMail by adding a chat feature. The new tool will be available Jan. 22, the first instruction day of the spring semester.