Future Tense

Can You Live Without Google?

When my account was suspended abruptly, I felt like I’d been dumped.

Google apps are shown on an Apple iPhone 5.

Google reserves the right to vaporize our data or discontinue its services at any time, for any reason.

Photo by Mike Blake/Reuters

One recent Thursday morning, I logged into my email and made an alarming discovery. Instead of opening my inbox, Google directed me to a 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.”

It was like I’d gotten dumped, via text message, by someone en route to Cabo. The vagaries left me reeling. I read the terms and policies, but they offered few clues. There were no numbers to call, no tickets to request help. I had a real problem with how things ended, so I filled out a form and sent it into the ether. What exactly had I done wrong? Had I missed the warning signs? Did Google want me or not?

At last count, Google manages a whopping 343 million active Google+ accounts (though the number of actual people using its services is probably fewer) and operates in 130 languages. Google strategically avoids the crush of users by offering little in the way of direct customer service. My calls to Mountain View HQ landed me in a labyrinth of recorded messages that inevitably led to one of a man, sounding only slightly less exasperated than I felt, shutting me down with a “Thankyougoodbye.”

A few minutes into my Google-less existence, I realized how dependent I had become. 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.

I turned to Facebook to ask friends who work at Google for help. Living in the Bay Area, I have a fair number of Googler friends, but the Googleplex has apparently grown so vast that none of them had any idea where to start. One guessed the policy department, another accounts. All assured me that this sort of thing rarely happened.

I had assumed it never happened at all. Sure, it had occurred to me when I had moved my work and memories into the “cloud” that I was relying on other people to keep them safe on their servers. But I figured a company with $50 billion in revenues and the modest aim to “organize the world’s information” had to run a tight ship. Anyway, it seemed implicit that in allowing Google to use my data, I could rely on Google to hold on to it—and to give it back.

In reality, I discovered, Google assumes no responsibility over user data nor is it required by law to do so. In the same notice informing me that it had disabled my account, Google told me for the first time that it reserves the right to “terminate your account at any time, for any reason, with or without notice.” In its Terms of Service, Google limits its total liability for stolen data, lost data, anything, “TO THE AMOUNT YOU PAID US TO USE THE SERVICES” (yes, in all caps), which could mean as much as the $2.49 per month you shelled out for 25GB more storage or in my case, nothing.

Google not only reserves the right to take away or vaporize our data for any reason, but it also reserves the right to discontinue services, the means to access it, whenever it wants. It does this more often than you probably realize and most recently with Google Reader, which disappears on July 1.

I was getting a crash course on the harsh realities of the Internet and early cloud computing, an era in which we are all just users and nothing more. No matter how much we actively contribute to improving companies’ products or the network of data that makes the Internet possible at all, users are easily discarded. Google’s priorities are squarely fixed on preventing data from falling into the wrong hands—not ensuring it is always available to the right ones.

I wondered whether users could find some reassurance in the law. Banking and investing came to mind first because both are in the middle of regulatory revolutions. At first, the analogy seemed apt. In the same way that we deposit funds into banks or with our brokers, we deposit data into Google’s servers and allow Google to utilize our data while expecting steady access to our accounts. But just as I discovered Google holds its interests above mine, under the law banks can also shut us out, owing depositors no fiduciary duty under the law in most states. The FDIC, not the law, is the safety net when banks fail their customers.

Technology policy expert Susan Crawford offers an alternative justification for regulation in her new book, Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly in the New Gilded Age, based on the premise that access to the Internet is now as essential as access to water, electricity, and the once mighty telephone, and therefore should be similarly regulated as a public utility to ensure it stays within everyone’s reach.

While critics argue that the public utility model is an ill fit for the Internet, I found one of its consequences particularly comforting. Public utilities have a “duty to serve” under common and statutory laws, meaning that ISPs would have to provide and maintain adequate and efficient services for the general good. Just as water companies can’t leave us dry without notice or very good cause, neither could an ISP.

Google so far does not control the Internet lines, not outside of Kansas City anyway, but even in the old world order, there have been times when the means to connect have mattered as much as what we connect to. Back in 1949, when an already regulated AT&T controlled most of the local and long-distance lines and the mode of access (customers had to pay extra to use phones not made by AT&T), the government sought to break it up even further. Modes of communication, whether wired or wireless, are essential services, and Google knows this. Its Android OS already powers 70 percent of smartphones worldwide.

Even if Google may not entirely control how we access the Internet (not in a way that permits the Federal Trade Commission to regulate or that has convinced many states to regulate ISPs as public utilities yet, anyway), this may be more of a failing of the law to adapt to the changing world than evidence that this new world order is working for us as mere users.

For now, all we have to balance out Google’s unfettered ability to lose or lock down the data we store on its servers is Google’s commercial sense, its recognition that providing dependable service is the only way it will keep us. I’m not sure that’s good enough for me, the 5 million businesses, or the 45 states that rely on Google, especially because the more users Google has, the less it needs us individually.

In case you’re wondering, in the end, I was fortunate. By Monday, a Googler filed the right internal escalation paperwork on my behalf and on Tuesday morning, six days after I lost access to my account, relayed that it had been restored.

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.

I returned to the Google fold with eyes wide-open to my responsibilities as a user. 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.

I’m also back in touch with my first love—spiral notebooks. Unlike Google, they will never come close to containing the world’s information, so no one but me will ever want to access them. And to encrypt my data, I just rely on my handwriting.

This story originally appeared in The Last Word on Nothing.