One recent Thursday morning, I logged into my email and made an alarming discovery. Instead of opening my inbox, Google directed me to a notice:
“Account has been disabled. … In most cases, accounts are disabled if we believe you have violated either the Google Terms of Service, product-specific Terms of Service … or product-specific policies. … [I]t might be possible to regain access to your account.”
It was like I’d gotten dumped, via text message, by someone en route to Cabo. The vagaries left me reeling. I read the terms and policies, but they offered few clues. There were no numbers to call, no tickets to request help. I had a real problem with how things ended, so I filled out a form and sent it into the ether. What exactly had I done wrong? Had I missed the warning signs? Did Google want me or not?
At last count, Google manages a whopping 343 million active Google+ accounts (though the number of actual people using its services is probably fewer) and operates in 130 languages. Google strategically avoids the crush of users by offering little in the way of direct customer service. My calls to Mountain View HQ landed me in a labyrinth of recorded messages that inevitably led to one of a man, sounding only slightly less exasperated than I felt, shutting me down with a “Thankyougoodbye.”
A few minutes into my Google-less existence, I realized how dependent I had become. I couldn’t finish my work or my taxes, because my notes and expenses were stored in Google Drive, and I didn’t know what else I should work on because my Google calendar had disappeared. I couldn’t publicly gripe about what I was going through, because my Blogger no longer existed. My Picasa albums were gone. I’d lost my contacts and calling plan through Google Voice; otherwise I would have called friends to cry.
I turned to Facebook to ask friends who work at Google for help. Living in the Bay Area, I have a fair number of Googler friends, but the Googleplex has apparently grown so vast that none of them had any idea where to start. One guessed the policy department, another accounts. All assured me that this sort of thing rarely happened.
I had assumed it never happened at all. Sure, it had occurred to me when I had moved my work and memories into the “cloud” that I was relying on other people to keep them safe on their servers. But I figured a company with $50 billion in revenues and the modest aim to “organize the world’s information” had to run a tight ship. Anyway, it seemed implicit that in allowing Google to use my data, I could rely on Google to hold on to it—and to give it back.
In reality, I discovered, Google assumes no responsibility over user data nor is it required by law to do so. In the same notice informing me that it had disabled my account, Google told me for the first time that it reserves the right to “terminate your account at any time, for any reason, with or without notice.” In its Terms of Service, Google limits its total liability for stolen data, lost data, anything, “TO THE AMOUNT YOU PAID US TO USE THE SERVICES” (yes, in all caps), which could mean as much as the $2.49 per month you shelled out for 25GB more storage or in my case, nothing.
Google not only reserves the right to take away or vaporize our data for any reason, but it also reserves the right to discontinue services, the means to access it, whenever it wants. It does this more often than you probably realize and most recently with Google Reader, which disappears on July 1.
I was getting a crash course on the harsh realities of the Internet and early cloud computing, an era in which we are all just users and nothing more. No matter how much we actively contribute to improving companies’ products or the network of data that makes the Internet possible at all, users are easily discarded. Google’s priorities are squarely fixed on preventing data from falling into the wrong hands—not ensuring it is always available to the right ones.