The cloud giveth, and the cloud taketh away.
Hundreds of Google Docs users found themselves locked out of their documents yesterday. A sombre Google message said they’d violated the terms of Google’s service. “We’re sorry. You cannot access this item because it’s in violation of our Terms of Service.” Some other people reported receiving an alert that said “This item has been flagged as inappropriate and can no longer be shared.”
— Leighton Pritchard (@widdowquinn) October 31, 2017
Google Docs is hugely popular, and Google’s seemingly random blocking of people’s documents caused quite a bit of panic. Among those affected were journalists and writers, who rely on Google Docs for professional work.
So Google Docs just kicked me out of my class’ collaborative study guide because it “violates the terms of service” ???? pic.twitter.com/vtEIFXgSnD
— 🎄ѕara claυѕ 🎄 (@x_saramaria_x) October 31, 2017
Has anyone had @googledocs lock you out of a doc before? My draft of a story about wildlife crime was just frozen for violating their TOS.
— Rachael Bale (@Rachael_Bale) October 31, 2017
Google Docs’s twitter account was inundated with complaints.
Seems like a lot of people (including journalists) got locked out of their Google Docs accounts today. pic.twitter.com/uIbADZRMBb
— Thomas Baekdal (@baekdal) October 31, 2017
Several people were unnerved by the blocks itself. Google had specified that documents were violating terms of service, implying that they were going through the content of the documents.
A glitch exposes underlying reality: Google watches what you type, classifies it, makes judgements, censors. https://t.co/AO3GPJfOrz
— Yasha Levine (@yashalevine) October 31, 2017
WRITERS- Time to stop using Google Drive and Google Docs immediately or risk losing your work. https://t.co/zftYNFrcti
— Matthew Rosenberg (@AshcanPress) November 2, 2017
Google ultimately came out with an explanation. “This morning, we made a code push that incorrectly flagged a small percentage of Google Docs as abusive, which caused those documents to be automatically blocked. A fix is in place and all users should have full access to their docs. Protecting users from viruses, malware, and other abusive content is central to user safety. We apologize for the disruption and will put processes in place to prevent this from happening again,” the company said in a statement.
While Google’s restored the users’ accounts, the glitch underscores how vulnerable cloud services can be. Content once uploaded into the cloud resides with a third party, and the exact terms and conditions are often hidden behind complicated legalese. As Google’s recent glitch shows, the company regularly scans the documents on its service, and can — unilaterally — choose to block access when they please. Google Docs is robust, and very convenient, but when a service is offered to you for free, you aren’t a customer — you’re most probably the product.