After I woke up this morning, I saw a weird login prompt on my phone asking me to log in. I tried entering my password a couple of times but it didn’t work. I then turned on my laptop and saw that I’ve been logged out of Gmail. After I tried logging in, this is what I saw:
"Account has been disabled." I’m sorry, what?! Yes, indeed, Google has disabled my account for some reason.
I tried looking around the web for solutions, and found out that there are lots of other people who have faced this same problem. In some cases, the situation had been resolved in a few days, but in some cases people’s accounts were never recovered. I tried contacting somebody at Google support ("Surely they should have a support department, right?" Nope, wrong!), but the only thing I could find which did not require one to be logged in to Google was a simple form which took an alternate email address from me (which Google already had), and didn’t even tell me that I will be contacted about this. That was it.
It was around that time which I started to stress out. I don’t use a lot of the Google services (thankfully), but the two things which I relied on were Gmail and Google Docs. I have been a Gmail user probably since 2004, and I have tens of thousands of work-related and personal emails stored in my account, some of which being extremely important to me. I also used Google Docs to store a bunch of very important documents which I won’t be able to recover by other means. Fortunately I don’t use other services such as Blogger, Picasa, Google Talk or Google+, so other parts of my online life such my ability to speak my mind freely on my blog, share photos with friends, talk to them or otherwise interact with them have not been affected by this. There are also other relatively minor nuiances happenening as a result of this (I won’t be able to use the Market to install or update applications on my Android phone, and my application purchases are in an unknwon state at this point), but given the other problems I am dealing with right now, these seem pretty minor.
Now I understand that these Google services are free, but I’ve been paying for the Gmail+Docs shared storage, but apparently that does not help me to get customer support, have any rights over the data I have stored on the Google storage for which I am paying, or at least get notified on the reason why my account has been disabled.
Now time to get to the gist of what I want to say in this post. We’ve all (yours truly included) heard about the importance of owning your digital data, the downsides of vendor lock-in, and how if you’re being provided a free service, you’re the product, not the customer. But I honestly never understood how deep this problem is, and how severe the consequences can be ("surely this cannot happen to me", right?!). But starting today, I look at this problem from an entirely new angle. The issue of user sovereignty for our data was always close to my heart, but this time it’s personal.