For the past few years, Google has been pushing the idea of Chrome OS and the Chromebook. The idea is simple: Shift your data into the cloud, carry a tiny device that connects to all your online information, and let Google worry about the heavy lifting. Less discussed is the question of what happens if Google decides you've violated its Terms of Service and shuts down your account.
That's what happened to Slate contributor Tienlon Ho, and the aftermath wasn't pretty. Google's notification included no specific details on why his account had been closed. He'd lost access to all of his data, including files stored on Google Drive, email, and shared documents. Tienlon goes on to note that Google's TOS -- the same TOS he'd somehow broken -- give Google the right to terminate your service at any time, for any reason. Google's liability for the services it provides is limited to the amount you pay them on a monthly basis.
If you don't pay for Google, that means they owe you nothing. Period. Ever. Ho eventually got access to his account restored, after six days, but notes:
My data was intact save for the last thing I’d worked on–a spreadsheet containing a client’s account numbers and passwords. It seems that Google’s engineers determined this single document violated policy and locked down my entire account. My request to get that document back is still pending.
Wake Up And Smell The Coffee
It's time for consumers to recognize the flip side to cloud computing. Your cloud providers owe you nothing. If you use Dropbox, or Microsoft SkyDrive, or Google, underneath the talk of providing backup service and a convenient storage location, they sell you nothing.
You aren't buying security. You aren't buying guaranteed recovery. You are buying the right to store data online, at their convenience. If they decide to stop offering the service, you have no recourse.
...until we say so.
Even pay services run by this model, as do most backup companies. Yank the Terms of Service for online backup services, and you'll find that they make no guarantees about the reliability and accuracy of their encryption. They are under no obligation to recover your data, and you're limited to the monthly fee you pay them as far as recovering any losses you may suffer.
Someone at Google decided that Ho's spreadsheet violated TOS. There was no conversation or appeals process, no discussion or a warning. Just a summary execution. That should be a wake-up call to anyone who uses online services; the companies that run these services are under no particular obligation to entertain your pleas for clemency.
If you care about your data, back it up locally. Not because Google, or Microsoft, or Amazon are evil, but because giant corporations with millions of users and highly automated usage policies are, by nature, extremely difficult to appeal to. It took Ho six days to get his account back, and he's missing the last, vital spreadsheet. Under certain circumstances, that spreadsheet could've contained data worth thousands of dollars. Losing email access at the wrong time could mean losing access to critical, time-sensitive documents.
"The cloud" isn't just a term to describe storing data up in the sky. It's a nifty description of just how solid your footing is up there. Assume the floor is made of wood at your own peril.