Google Drive Proves It: Google Is Officially the Internet’s Bad Guy

    April 26, 2012

Here we go again: Google has launched a new free service, something that actually sounds pretty useful, but the glowing coals of privacy concerns have been stoked to bring forth a fiery revival of the issue.

At issue this time is Google Drive, the cloud storage service that Google launched this past Tuesday. However you feel about sharing any more of your data with Google than you already do (willing or unwillingly), the good news this time is that there isn’t anything new to study since Google’s privacy policy and terms of service are uniform for every service they offer. The questions about privacy after Drive launched are the same questions about privacy that existed before Drive launched.

The bad news, I suppose if you’re Google, is that this has rejuvenated the scrutiny over how Google handles and stores your private information. The bad news is less severe this time around because, again, this is a “second verse, same as the first” encore act. I guess that’s one good thing about Google’s unified service policies: no new documents to get acquainted with each time they launch a new service. Same stink, different pile.

But is Drive really that different from the other cloud services we use? The Verge put together an elaborate comparison that’s been making the rounds on the internet in which they compare the privacy terms of Google Drive with the comparable services offered by Microsoft’s SkyDrive, Apple’s iCloud, and Dropbox. The conclusion they make, and one with which I concur, is that Drive’s terms really aren’t all that different from any of the other three services.

Like the other three service, too, Google is not stealing your content as soon as you upload it to Drive. Google makes no monstrous claims of ownership on whatever you upload to Drive. They say as much in the first sentence of the terms of service under the section Your Content in our Services: “You retain ownership of any intellectual property rights that you hold in that content. In short, what belongs to you stays yours.” Easy peasy. Google controls a lot and sometimes its influence frightens me, but I don’t think it has quite developed an algorithm for human language that magically changes the recognized definition of words. And even if you do upload sensitive documents like that novella you’re almost finished with or proof of the Higgs boson’s existence, Portfolio confirmed it with an intellectual property lawyer: Google won’t steal your work.

The detail that’s raising people’s hackles, however, is that the terms also state that users

give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content.

The interpretation some have of this is that Google’s performed an opportunistic sleight of hand: while it states that you definitely own your content, Google also reserves for itself the right to use your content for the “purpose of operating, promoting, and improving our Services, and to develop new ones” (again, that’s quoted from Google’s Terms). Keyword: promoting. Concerning this notion of Google using your content to promote, i.e. advertise, Ars Technica points out that this is probably only the case for any files that have public visibility. In other words, if you don’t have that behind some kind of privacy lock, Google could very well use it in their ads.

Then again, if you have your documents floating around on the internet’s public space like that, anybody – not just Google – could use your material for whatever they want to. Whether you’re okay with that is your prerogative, but if you want to be on the safe side, keep your files private. That’s just the lay of the internet land, and that risk comes with any public hosting service you use. In fact, Microsoft, using comedically plain words, tells you as much in its privacy terms for SkyDrive: “If you share content in public areas of the service or in shared areas available to others you’ve chosen, then you agree that anyone you’ve shared content with may use that content … If you don’t want others to have those rights, don’t use the service to share your content.” In other words, use common sense and take the steps to protect yourself and your content if it’s that important to you.

To clarify the potential problem with you granting Google rights to use your content for promoting, WPN asked Google for an explanation. A spokesperson from Google replied, “As our Terms of Service make clear, ‘what belongs to you stays yours.’ You own your files and control their sharing, plain and simple. Our Terms of Service enable us to give you the services you want — so if you decide to share a document with someone, or open it on a different device, you can.”

In a follow-up email to Google, however, in which we asked Google to share an example of the word “promoting” might entail in this case, Google did not respond. Sometimes, it seems, silence is not merely the lack of an answer.

In spite of what appear to be clear terms that state Google isn’t going to cop your content, Drive is still being maligned as a risky place to store your files. The New York Times, for example, sent out a memo to all of its employees advising them not to use Drive or even Gmail for company purposes until Google elaborated on how its policies apply to sensitive corporate information.

In a statement to the Times, Google’s general counsel, Kent Walker, said, “People shouldn’t come to the conclusion that we’re doing nefarious things. We, Facebook and Microsoft are all trying to do similar things. The terms of service are trying to cover what is inherent in Web-based services.”

While saying you’re not doing anything “nefarious” because other people are doing the same thing doesn’t necessarily exculpate you of any unsavory intent, Walker does reiterate what other outlets have confirmed: if you’re apprehensive about storing your content on Drive, then you should equally be anxious to store your content on SkyDrive, Dropbox, and iCloud. Yet, where were the company embargos on employees using those services when they launched?

The ado circling around Drive’s security and privacy now appear to be less about Drive and more a referendum on Google itself. Drive’s launch of a service that by all rights is very similar to three other popular service reveals that Google is officially the Bad Guy in the internet world. True, Google hasn’t done itself any favors to avoid that reputation, what with the creepy Street Car eavesdropping on people’s wi-fi activity and the discovery that Google was bypassing security settings in browsers to collect data on people (in that latter case, at least, Facebook was found to be using a similar security exploit but received nowhere near the outrage that Google received).

Another aspect that sets Google apart from Microsoft, Dropbox, and Apple – at least in terms of cloud storage – is that Google has such a gargantuan presence on the internet, so much that offering a new service perpetuates the fearful and natural conclusion that sharing with Google equates sharing with the internet as a whole. In a way, because of Google’s prominence in nearly every aspect of online life, Google has become an easy target for criticism (again, that’s not to say that it’s undeserved – it’s just how it is) for being the ostensible overlord monitoring everything we do in our online lives.

The one new and important question to arise with Drive’s launch is how the content stored there will fit into Google’s philosophy on internet search. My colleague, Chris Crum, has already asked Google if it intends to integrate Drive content into search results, to which Google replied with a canny, “We have nothing to announce at this time.” There are two implications of Drive’s inclusion into search results: it could affect the quality of results as well as, perhaps obviously, include any publicly shared content from Drive. Alas, we’ll cross that bridge if and when we come to it.

In the end, here’s what you should do: if Google’s new privacy and terms policies frightened or angered you when they launched on March 1, Drive may remind you that you’re supposed to feel frightened or angered (or both, if you want to multitask) but doesn’t introduce any new problems. Stay vigilante and don’t put all of your info eggs into the same basket. Nobody can blame you for being cautious.

However, if you are less bothered by Google’s new privacy and terms policies, you might enjoy what Drive has to offer. Should the way that Google incorporates Drive content into search queries, well… actually, that might still be a concern.

Drive, in the end, changes nothing about the privacy argument with Google. It just adjusts the focus of a lens that was already fixed on the issue. What Drive does reveal, though, is that Google’s complex reputation among the public seems to encourage us to demonize the company even in situations where it might not even be merited.