I wondered whether users could find some reassurance in the law. Banking and investing came to mind first because both are in the middle of regulatory revolutions. At first, the analogy seemed apt. In the same way that we deposit funds into banks or with our brokers, we deposit data into Google’s servers and allow Google to utilize our data while expecting steady access to our accounts. But just as I discovered Google holds its interests above mine, under the law banks can also shut us out, owing depositors no fiduciary duty under the law in most states. The FDIC, not the law, is the safety net when banks fail their customers.
Technology policy expert Susan Crawford offers an alternative justification for regulation in her new book, Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly in the New Gilded Age, based on the premise that access to the Internet is now as essential as access to water, electricity, and the once mighty telephone, and therefore should be similarly regulated as a public utility to ensure it stays within everyone’s reach.
While critics argue that the public utility model is an ill fit for the Internet, I found one of its consequences particularly comforting. Public utilities have a “duty to serve” under common and statutory laws, meaning that ISPs would have to provide and maintain adequate and efficient services for the general good. Just as water companies can’t leave us dry without notice or very good cause, neither could an ISP.
Google so far does not control the Internet lines, not outside of Kansas City anyway, but even in the old world order, there have been times when the means to connect have mattered as much as what we connect to. Back in 1949, when an already regulated AT&T controlled most of the local and long-distance lines and the mode of access (customers had to pay extra to use phones not made by AT&T), the government sought to break it up even further. Modes of communication, whether wired or wireless, are essential services, and Google knows this. Its Android OS already powers 70 percent of smartphones worldwide.
Even if Google may not entirely control how we access the Internet (not in a way that permits the Federal Trade Commission to regulate or that has convinced many states to regulate ISPs as public utilities yet, anyway), this may be more of a failing of the law to adapt to the changing world than evidence that this new world order is working for us as mere users.
For now, all we have to balance out Google’s unfettered ability to lose or lock down the data we store on its servers is Google’s commercial sense, its recognition that providing dependable service is the only way it will keep us. I’m not sure that’s good enough for me, the 5 million businesses, or the 45 states that rely on Google, especially because the more users Google has, the less it needs us individually.
In case you’re wondering, in the end, I was fortunate. By Monday, a Googler filed the right internal escalation paperwork on my behalf and on Tuesday morning, six days after I lost access to my account, relayed that it had been restored.
My data was intact save for the last thing I’d worked on–a spreadsheet containing a client’s account numbers and passwords. It seems that Google’s engineers determined this single document violated policy and locked down my entire account. My request to get that document back is still pending.
I returned to the Google fold with eyes wide-open to my responsibilities as a user. In relationship terms, I am no longer monogamous. I store my data on other servers maintained by providers like Evernote, Dropbox, and WordPress, and the cloud is my standby, not my steady. I’ve swapped convenience for control: I back up my email and what I care about most on physical hard drives.
I’m also back in touch with my first love—spiral notebooks. Unlike Google, they will never come close to containing the world’s information, so no one but me will ever want to access them. And to encrypt my data, I just rely on my handwriting.
This story originally appeared in The Last Word on Nothing.