Unacceptable: How Google Undermines User Trust by Blocking Users from Their Own Data

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UPDATE (November 18, 2016): After much public outcry, Google has now reversed the specific Pixel-related Google account bans noted in this post. Unfortunately, the overall Whose data is it? problem discussed in this post persists, and it’s long since time for Google to appropriately address this issue, which continues to undermine public user trust in a fine company.

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There are times when Google is in the right. There are times when Google is in the wrong. By far, they’re usually on the angels’ side of most issues. But there’s one area where they’ve had consistent problems dating back for years: Cutting off users from those users’ own data when there’s a dispute regarding Google Account status.

A new example of this recurring problem — an issue about which I’ve heard from large numbers of Google users over time — has just surfaced. In this case, it involves the reselling of Google Pixel phones in a manner that apparently violates the Google Terms of Service, with the result that a couple of hundred users have reportedly been locked out of their Google accounts and all of their data, at least for now. 

This means that they’re cut off from everything they’ve entrusted to Google — mail, documents, photos, the works.

Here and now, I’m not going to delve into the specifics of this case — I don’t know enough of the details yet. The entire area of Google accounts suspension, closure, recovery, and so on is complex to say the least. Most times (but not always) users are indeed at fault — one way or another — when these kinds of events are triggered. And the difficulty of successfully appealing a Google account suspension or closure has become rather legendary.

Even recovering a Google account due to the loss of a password can be difficult if you haven’t taken proactive steps to aid in that process ahead of time —steps that I’ve previously discussed in detail.

But the problem of what happens to users’ data when they can’t access their accounts — for whatever reasons — is something that I’ve personally been arguing with Google about literally for years, without making much headway at all.

Google has excellent mechanisms for users to download their data while they still have account access. Google even has systems for you to specify someone else who would have access to your account in case of emergency (such as illness or accident), and policies for dealing with access to accounts in case of the death of an account holder.

The reality though, is that users have been taught to trust Google with ever more data that is critical to their lives, and most people don’t usually think about downloading that data proactively.

So when something goes wrong with their account, and they lose access to all of that data, it’s like getting hit with a ton of bricks.

Again, this is not to say that users aren’t often — in fact usually — in the wrong (at least in some respect) when it comes to account problems. 

But unless there is a serious — and I mean serious (like child porn, for example) criminal violation of law — my view is that in most circumstances users should have some means to download their data from their account even if it has been suspended or closed for good cause. 

If they can’t use Google services again afterwards, them’s the breaks. But it’s still their own data we’re talking about, not Google’s.

Google has been incredibly resistant to altering this aspect of their approach to user account problems. I am not ignorant of their general reasoning in this category of cases — but I strongly believe that they are wrong with their essentially one size fits all “death penalty” regime in this context.

Nobody is arguing that there aren’t some specific situations where blocking a violating user (or a user accused of violations) from accessing their data on Google services is indeed justified. But Google doesn’t seem to have any provisions for anything less than total data cutoff when there’s a user account access issue, even when significant relevant legal concerns are not involved.

This continuing attitude by Google does not engender user trust in Google’s stewardship of user data, even though most users will never run afoul of this problem.

These kinds of actions by Google provide ammunition to the Google Haters and are self-damaging to a great firm and the reputation of Googlers everywhere, some of whom have related to me their embarrassment at trying to explain such stories to their own friends and families.

Google must do better when it come to this category of user account issues. And I’ll keep arguing this point until I’m blue in the face and my typing fingertips are bruised. C’mon Google, please give me a break!

–Lauren–
I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.
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The correct term is “Internet” NOT “internet” — please don’t fall into the trap of using the latter. It’s just plain wrong!