[This article was published in the October 2011 issue of PC & Tech Authority. We have republished it here so you can add your own comments].
This is the story of a man who lost everything. Well, everything in his Google account.
Dylan woke up one morning to find that his Gmail account had been deactivated because Google had “perceived a violation” of its terms and conditions. No further explanation was offered; no right of reply granted. Whether Dylan’s account had been hijacked by a spammer, or whether he’d failed “to comply with the instructions set out in any robots.txt file present on the services” (one of the more bizarre Ts&Cs you agree to when signing up for Gmail) wasn’t clear. The only certainty was that Dylan was now persona non grata as far as Google was concerned.
Dylan was somewhat aggrieved at the loss of his email account. Not only had he lost seven years’ worth of correspondence – including bank and medical records – but he’d also lost the address itself. “I’m currently in the process of applying to graduate school,” Dylan explained in an open letter to Google. “Meaning that in addition to friends and family abroad, or people who otherwise may not be able to reach me, these [graduate school] people will now receive a message from Google that my email address does not exist.”
But the loss of his inbox and email address wasn’t even the half of it. That Gmail address was Dylan’s gateway to dozens of other Google services, which the search giant actively encourages you to use with that same, single login. So gone, too, were 4800 photos and videos stored on Google Picasa albums; 500+ articles he’d carefully curated in Google Reader; more than 200 contacts from his online address book; access to calendars; and all documents stored in his Google Docs. (All of which, perhaps foolishly, Dylan had failed to back up.)
Naturally, Dylan attempted to contact Google to find out why his account had been blocked; but Google doesn’t do telephone support (at least not for “free” products such as Gmail) and its support forums were an exercise in futility, with volunteer moderators chipping in with priceless advice such as: “Can you log in and tell me what it says?” Erm…
“I filed every form and request I could find and attempted to contact every office, and even went in person to both Manhattan offices,” Dylan claimed, “but not one single person has been able to offer any assistance, which I find shocking and infuriating in a Kafkaesque nightmarish way.” Even after a Google employee spotted his tirade on Twitter and asked the customer services department to look into it, all they would tell him was that Dylan’s account had been disabled, without explanation.
“No other online service provider behaves in this way,” Dylan pleaded in his open letter to Google. If only that were true. Before I’d even set eyes on Dylan’s story, I’d been helping a reader who ran into the same problem with Microsoft. He’d seen his long-held MSN email account withdrawn after it had been hacked by a spammer. He’d sent emails to everyone from Microsoft tech support to Bill Gates trying to reclaim his address, and more than a week after I’d got Microsoft’s press team to look into it, he was no closer to being reunited with his inbox.
And these certainly aren’t isolated cases. Type the phrase “locked out of” into Google’s predictive search box and the third most popular suggested search term – after “car” and “home” – is “Hotmail”. Similarly, type “Gmail account locked” and witness the pages of desperate forum entries that emerge.
Staring at a blank screen
Yet in some ways, Dylan was fortunate. Shortly before his Googlepocalypse, he was on the verge of trading in his iPhone for an Android smartphone. As any Android handset or tablet owner will know, the device uses your Google ID to verify and synchronise apps on your devices. Lose your account and you also lose access to all your Android Market downloads – even ones you’ve paid for.
And if Dylan had been an early adopter of Google’s Chromebooks he’d now be staring at a blank screen, because you need a Google username to do anything with the cloud-based computers. You can’t even back up, because nothing is stored locally in the first place. “Even if you lose your computer, you can just log in to another Chromebook and get right back to work,” reads the blurb on Google’s Chromebook page. That’s terrific. But what happens when you lose your login?
Now Dylan has finally had his account reinstated, but only after the incredible publicity he received. Would anyone else be so lucky?