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The Longest Now

Dylan M v. Google : what to do when you are erased online
Monday July 25th 2011, 11:43 pm
Filed under: %a la mod,chain-gang,fly-by-wire,metrics,popular demand

Dylan M. (@thomasmonopoly) is a real person from New York.  He writes a bit of music, has a personal website, and generally uses a lot of Google services.  Whoops —  or at least he did, until he was G!unpersoned last week.


A week ago, Dylan had an active Google Profile,  a Gmail account, and his website was set up through Google Sites. Then, for an unspecified Terms of Service violation, all of these were suspended or deleted.  Google reps did not specify which, nor did they explain the TOS violation to him.

Here is his initial raging post to a community help forum on Jul 16; a followup the next day.  Customer service, such as it is, has not been kind.  Here are two examples of a “deserved what you got” mentality.  (If you’re a true customer-focused org, noon ever deserves a bad experience!)  On the other hand, here is a lovely note from Google social czar Vic Gundotra, just the sort of thing everyone wants to hear: “You bet on Google.  We owe you better.  I’m investigating.”  (update: DM reports getting a call from VG on July 25, with more info to come)

Naturally, Dylan wanted to know why he was banned.  (Even more naturally, he wanted a copy of his email and addressbook, and some minimal duration of email forwarding.)


What’s happening here

Since the US Post Office has given up on providing digital mail and addresses for people, we have all lost most of the civil rights that used to apply to our mailing address — the right to maintain an address over time, the right to a system of mail delivery that could not be spied on by other citizens…

The implicit right to a mail system which will try its best to get anything addressed to you into your hands, including holding on to it for you for a time when you are no longer reachable at your previous address.  The same thing has happened in most countries around the world.

We assume a lot of these rights — they are important in a communicative society.  “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night” dates back to Herodotus, describing couriers in his Histories.   However, while we have grown ever more reliant on communication as part of everyday life, we have also grown careless in who we let oversee communication channels.  The world has never lived through a major email-provider disappearing, or killing off most of its users; but we can imagine what that would be like, by observing the sometimes capricious application of blacklists and account banning.


Protecting yourself from obscurity 

First, learn how to backup everything: set up an offline mail client — Thunderbird or Outlook, for example. Make sure you’re backing up your addressbook and email with such a client, regularly.

Second, speak up when you are cut off from services you depend on.   (This works when you are singled out; but not in cases of global crisis or a provider-wide meltdown.)  While a major service provider may have no legal obligation to continue serving you, they surely have your data backed up somewhere.  The negative publicity of their screwing over a long-time user can be worth much more than it would cost them to find and send you your data.

In Dylan’s case, he created a twitter account for thomasmonopoly, posted a manifesto about why he was quitting all Google services (nice phrasing there), and broadcast it across the web.  This fed into latent fears that all Internet users have that by using a small number of centralized services, they are becoming vulnerable to just this sort of online-identity destruction… it remains a hot topic among privacy circles.  “This describes my worst fear” is a common comment.

Third, be nice to your provider!  They can always help or hinder you, at their whim.  Even when you are frustrated, be kind and patient with the people you are asking for help.  Else they may write you off without really listening to what you have to say.

If you know of anyone else who has been unpersoned, or has lost a major part of their digital identity, please let me know.

I sympathise with anyone who has lost stuff on the internet or been Google slapped. One way I have to keep my info safe is a terabyte of external storage. A couple of Seagate plug-in hard drives will hold all of your program files and applications.

Comment by Sheila Griffin 08.05.11 @ 10:51 pm

I agree with your last comment regarding storage. The only thing now is that a terabyte of storage may not be enough to hold everything you got on your pc. A lot of people are storing movies now and they take up a lot of space.

Comment by Jon Gray 02.16.13 @ 9:17 am

Bad Behavior has blocked 237 access attempts in the last 7 days.