Google Just Got a Little Less Evil

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Dec. 5 2013 5:01 PM

Google Finally Lets You Download Your Own Calendar, Gmail Data

Gmail Logo
You've got your own mail.

A welcome bit of news from Google’s “don’t be evil” department: You can now download a copy of your own Gmail and Google Calendar data.

The move is part of the growing menu of “Google Takeout” options that includes YouTube, Drive, and several other products. They’re being developed by a team or engineers within Google that calls itself the “Data Liberation Front.” (Yes, that’s a Monty Python reference.) Your Google Calendar data is available for download as of today, and the option to download your Gmail messages will be rolled out over the next month. Just go to your account settings, click “download your data,” and select the data sources you’re interested in.

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The ability to download your own data is useful in couple ways. First, it allows you to easily transfer that data if you want to switch to a different service, like iCal or Microsoft Outlook. Second, it gives you a backup should anything happen to your Google data. More fundamentally, it gives you ownership over your personal information in a way that just isn’t possible when your only access point is through Google’s proprietary apps and interfaces. Information is power, and while many of us have grown comfortable entrusting it to for-profit Internet companies in exchange for free services, the least we ought to demand in return is the right to keep a copy of it for ourselves.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

As much as we mock Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” slogan as nebulous or self-serving, Google Takeout is a concrete example of how it can actually influence the company’s actions for the better, at least in small ways. The Data Liberation Front’s FAQ page cites a quote from Google Chairman Eric Schmidt as one of the primary motivations for its work:

How do you be big without being evil?  We don't trap end users. So if you don't like Google, if for whatever reason we do a bad job for you, we make it easy for you to move to our competitor.

At the time Schmidt said that, though, Google didn’t really make it that easy, as the DLF admits: “We started looking at our products and discovered that while the door to leave wasn't locked, in some cases it was a bit ‘stuck’ and we thought that we could do better.”

That said, Google could still do a lot better. As the Register’s Jack Clark points out, Google Takeout does not include your search history or the history of online ads you’ve clicked on. To get that, you have to go through a much more intricate set of steps involving an RSS reader and multiple batches of data. Clark’s pointed conclusion:

The process is laborious, and seems to discourage users from accessing this data. A strange coincidence, given that search is what Google uses to refine its algorithms and make its money.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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