*Update, Oct. 31, 2017, 3:35 p.m. EDT: A Google spokesperson sent the following statement about the origin of the Google Docs issue, which they say has since been resolved:
This morning, we made a code push that incorrectly flagged a small percentage of Google Docs as abusive, which caused those documents to be automatically blocked. A fix is in place and all users should have full access to their docs. Protecting users from viruses, malware, and other abusive content is central to user safety. We apologize for the disruption and will put processes in place to prevent this from happening again.
Trying to get some work done Tuesday morning and finding yourself unable to access that extremely important Google Doc you were working with on Monday? You’re not alone. A bug is currently storming through Google Docs and freezing people out of their documents, apparently for violating the application’s terms of service.
The company is aware and working to investigate the issue. In a statement to Slate, a Google spokesperson said, “We’re investigating reports of an issue with Google Docs. We will provide more information when appropriate.”
They’ve also been responding to user’s complaints over Twitter, where most of the complaints are being made, some of which include references to what’s in the inaccessible Google Docs.
Has anyone had @googledocs lock you out of a doc before? My draft of a story about wildlife crime was just frozen for violating their TOS.— Rachael Bale (@Rachael_Bale) October 31, 2017
Tfw your finalizing a piece on E. Europe post-socialist parties in Google Drive and Google removes it because it's in violation of its ToS??— Bhaskar Sunkara (@sunraysunray) October 31, 2017
This of course spurred questions around whether it was the content of the documents itself that had spurred the warning about violating the terms of service:
this is the third tweet like this i've seen this morning — glitch, or ominous reminder of who owns the cloud? https://t.co/xSkSk8IMsE— matthew braga (@mattbraga) October 31, 2017
Anyone who uses Google Drive and its various apps, including Docs, agrees by default to the company’s Terms of Service. The parts of the agreement include personal conduct stipulations, copyright protection, adhering to program policies, and more. It’s not yet known which part of the Terms of Service the bug believes is being violated—it might think it’s seeing flags for spam or abuse, or copyright violations, all of the above, or something else entirely.
FYI according to this thread some Google spam system has gone rogue and is randomly blocking some Google Docs https://t.co/A83vuPOapo— SwiftOnSecurity (@SwiftOnSecurity) October 31, 2017
This is the second high-profile issue embroiling Google Docs in 2017. A phishing attack in May tricked thousands of users (maybe as many as 1 million) into clicking on a false invitation to share a Google Doc file sent from an email user they knew. When that link was opened, it allowed malicious parties access to the user’s Gmail contact list and forwarded the fake invite out to others through the user’s own account. The attack’s damage seemed strangely limited to just perpetuating the forwarding of fake links to other users and opening up their contact lists, but sensitive user information could very well have been compromised anyway.
That’s certainly not what’s at stake here, but Google almost certainly isn’t pleased to watch the Docs brand get dragged through another round of bashing over the web. We’ll update this post as answers come in. In any case, it’s probably wise to stay off Google Docs until the issue is resolved.