The dark side of the cloud

What happens when a user loses all their data ? the curious tale of Thomas Monopoly and his Google account
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Dylan M, who goes by the name Thomas Monopoly online, trusted Google so much that he spent four months consolidating all his data on the web giant’s services. Then it all disappeared.

In his original open letter to Google, Thomas Monopoly (TM) explained that this included seven years of correspondence, over 4,800 photographs and videos, his Google voice messages, his Google Reader account, Google Docs and all his contacts and bookmarks. The list doesn’t end there – TM also used Google Calendar, for doctors appointments and meetings. He even had a Blogger account.

In short, his entire life was on the cloud.

On July 15th, 2011, his entire Google account was closed – with no explanation or notice, and no email to the alternate address he had provided.

He sought help from user forums, but found there was no easy way to contact Google directly.

Eventually, a Google employee saw TM complaining on Twitter and tried to investigate, only to report that he couldn’t get any information either.

The tale soon took an interesting twist. With the help of the open letter, published on July 22nd, the story went viral on Twitter within three days.

On the 26th, Google finally got in touch – TM got a personal call, in fact, from none other than Google senior vice president Vic Gundotra.

It turned out that a Terms of Service violation was responsible. He had a photograph in his account (the best explanation is on his blog, here) as part of an art project on ‘the evolution of sex’, which was picked up by Google’s automated system as a ToS violation.

TM now appears to be satisfied as to why his account was flagged and why Google did not immediately publically reveal the reason for the account suspension. However, his relationship with the cloud is forever changed and there is a warning in this story for all computer users – back up your data. If you trust a service with your data, do not assume you will always have easy access to it.

On his blog, TM noted: “My account has been reinstated, and it is not without trepidation that I will continue to use it in tandem with other services from other providers, and continue routine backups, something which I hope my original letter has encouraged anyone who uses cloud services to do.”

He also commented that “[Vic Gundotra] has said that Google is proud of its zero-tolerance policy, and is reviewing how it addresses Terms of Service violations.”

Speaking to PCR, he said: “They claim this case is making them review how they deal with communicating ToS violations, but we'll see.”

The issue here is not whether Google was right or wrong in initially considering this case a ToS violation, but that as cloud services encourage users to keep more and more personal data online, they become the gatekeepers of our personal information. Should they be more accountable to users? Google may be a free service, but it gains revenue from users clicking its ads. People who use its apps do have value. Don’t they deserve at least an email of explanation when their account disappears?

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I'm going to go out on a limb here and say the main problem with cloud computing - or the top tier firm's wish to see it adopted by the mainstream - is misrepresentation.