Whether it is Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Drive, Blogger or Google Apps for Work …  how much control, ownership and, most importantly, continuous access do you have to the valuable data you produce and store with Google?

Do you even actually own the data you created and/or stored with Google? And does ownership automatically grant you access to your data?

For Google Drive Google states, “You retain ownership of any intellectual property rights that you hold in that content. In short, what belongs to you stays yours.”

For Google Cloud or Google for Work Google states, “To put it simply, the data that companies, schools, and government agencies put into our systems are theirs. Whether it’s corporate intellectual property, personal information, or a homework assignment, Google does not own that data.”

All very simple and clear in regards to the ownership of the raw data. But again, does Google’s recognition of your ownership equal unfettered ongoing access to your data? What might be lurking in Google’s Terms of Service that could affect your access to a Google account and everything in it? Under what conditions might a user find themselves locked out or suspended and lose access to the data that even Google says that user owns?

And, what recourse does an individual have with Google if their account ever happened to get locked?

Well, it turns out that the following statement is one that every Google user should take a bit more seriously… Google reserves the right to: “Terminate your account at any time, for any reason, with or without notice.” OK, they say that, but it would never actually happen…right? Just ask travel and food writer Tienlon Ho who in 2013 went to login to her email account and received the following 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.”

What followed was the realization that “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.”

She attempted to navigate her way through a variety of recorded messages at Google headquarters in Mountain View only to end up reaching out for help via Facebook to friends who work at Google. In the end, six days after she lost complete access to her account, it was restored due to someone escalating the complaint on her behalf. What was the offense that caused the account lockout? Google engineers said a single spreadsheet containing her client’s account numbers and passwords somehow violated policy.

A more recent and widely publicized event occurred June 27, 2016 and involves writer and blogger Dennis Cooper. Suffice it to say that in general Mr. Cooper’s content can be edgy, controversial and push boundaries. Cooper himself speculates that “the objectionable content on his blog might have been the male-escort ads he finds online, edits a little, and posts for his readers.” Google’s Blogger’s policy page does state under “Content Boundaries” that it does allow Adult Content, but only so long as it is properly marked and does not violate a considerably long list of exceptions.

The point here is not Google’s or anyone else’s perception of the value of Mr. Copper’s content, or even if he did violate Google’s terms, but rather, the way in which it was removed and that access has been completely denied to the considerable amount of data that he produced over many years.

Quoting from a July 24, 2016 article in New Yorker by Jennifer Krasinski:

“Cooper has submitted numerous requests for information via the channels that Google has put in place, but all of them have been ignored. He has worked with a Google employee, who attempted to launch an internal investigation on the writer’s behalf, but found herself stonewalled and unable to help. He enlisted a lawyer, who contacted the Google legal team on his behalf. According to Cooper, the company lawyer’s reply was, “I’m sure they’ll get back to him.” “I still haven’t heard anything,” Cooper told me. “I mean, not a single word.”

As of mid- August 2016, he still has no access to any of his content built over many years.

Or consider the case of one of my clients. This single user in a paid, multi-user Google Apps for Business account lost access to all of their email, calendar and contacts. It took some doing, but eventually it was discovered that a younger member of the household, using the parents Google credentials, posted some type of adult content to YouTube. And though Google states, “Your account has not been deleted, your data is still intact, and it might be possible to regain access to your account.” In my client’s case, Google has refused to grant any access to mail, contacts or their calendar. It all remains locked and unavailable. Even the original email address is no longer usable.

In none of these three cases did Google allege the user committed a criminal offense or used their Google account to defraud or defame someone. Nor was any government agency involved “behind the scenes” ordering Google to act in the way they did.

In each case the user received no notice of an impending action by Google. And, in only one case was the data restored to its rightful owner.

These are only three known cases among millions of users. There are likely many more such stories. The point that should be taken seriously is that at any time with no notice you, your company, or anyone else could find their data at Google locked behind what is essentially an impenetrable wall of silence.

Whatever tools or methods you can find, even if only Google’s “Takeout Service,” it would be wise to have a local copy of your data.

As Tienlan Ho found out… “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.”


Further Reading:    What was in Tienlon Ho’s Spreadsheet?Why Did Google Delete Author Dennis Cooper’s Literary Blog?  ,  The Blog That Disappeared