Warm bodies are still smarter than silicon (When “the cloud” delivers a thunderstorm, part 2)

Recently, I posted about Dylan M and his sudden unexplained loss of his Google account. The aftermath of the story is given in a follow up to the previous article on Consumerist. While it is nice to see a happy ending, the truth as to why Dylan had his account locked in the first place is yet another cautionary tale about trusting cloud-based services.

Quoting Dylan as quoted by Consumerist:

I am a former art student and for the past year I have made my living as an artist. Three years ago I had been preparing a compilation of images to participate in an art show entitled “The Evolution of Sex” featuring a set of images, not my own, which I felt depicted the increasing violence and growing absurdity of pornography over the past 2000 years.

The image that they considered a violation of the Terms of Service is not among them and was more explicit, but it was created by the same photographer as the overtly suggestive last image, whose work is apparently well known and contentious for the obvious reasons of skirting legal boundaries.

Translation: this photog’s work pushes the line of what’s considered kiddie porn. (It would seem that Dylan’s account was flagged simply because he had a picture from a photographer known to test the limits, caught by an automated scan. I’ll get back to this point at the end.)

The only thing that is aggravating is that in the same folder they flagged, which was also titled “The Evolution of Sex,” are images of well known ancient Pompeii fertility statues, pre-historic examples including the Venus of Willendorf, a page from a French anti-pornography series from the 1800’s, one version of a common and well known advertisement that has been snuck into phonebooks nationwide since the 1950’s that is subversively pornographic (check your phonebook, or Snopes, it’s still very common in the UK), the cover from an issue of Rapeman, an infamous Japanese comic book about a superhero who rapes the wives of his enemies as retribution and can also be hired by corporations to rape the wives of thieving employees, and a picture of a vending machine on a street in Japan which claims to sell used young girls underwear.

Google employs an automated system to scan user storage for violations of their ToS and in the process erroneously flagged one of the images in the folder as child pornography… I am not angry at Google about this, as some might suggest… Google was unable to speak with me about it for legal reasons and it was Vic Gundotra who fast-tracked the appeal process once he learned of the situation through Twitter and personally investigated. When I asked him what would have happened had he not intervened he said the case would have gone through the regular appeals process and may have taken weeks to be sorted out.

Translation: We’re Google, we know what’s child porn better than you do, and even if we occasionally seem to be wrong, you can do without your Google account for a few weeks, right?

I can understand Google policing their servers for child pornography. However, I get the impression this was not reviewed by a human. It’s obvious that Dylan is not a pedophile, but an artist. It infringes upon Dylan’s free speech and free expression for Google to be “trigger happy” and assume that one picture from this photographer had to be kiddie porn based completely on that photog’s reputation.

So in some ways it’s worse than I thought. Put an image Google decides not to like on your Picasa account, and one could wind up losing one’s entire Google account, not just Picasa. I think that’s a bit too heavy handed and serves to underscore the need to make backups off of the cloud. There is something about plugging in a USB flash drive, copying data to it, taking it back out, and actually touching the physical medium one’s data is stored on. Maybe it’s just me, I don’t know.

Google definitely needs to find better ways to handle situations like this. I think just locking an account with no explanation is inexcusable. We should not have to do what Dylan did, should the same thing happen to us. At the very least, I will probably never use Picasa after reading about this, and will back up my Flickr and other photo service accounts on a more regular basis from now on.

When “the cloud” delivers a thunderstorm

(NOTE: in the time it took me to get this post ready for publication, Dylan did get his access restored. I will be following up with the conclusion of the story, which raises more points for discussion than I wanted to add to this post.)

I have been cautious with regard to the new wave of “cloud-based” services. I keep backups of all my data on my own media. And I’m sure some of you laugh at me as old-fashioned. Well, wait until you read this story.

A recent post to Consumerist tells the story of Dylan M. (he is identified only by first name in the article; the last initial is on his Twitter account) and the sudden deactivation of his Google account.

Dylan was a happy user of Google’s services for the last seven years, until 2011 July 15 when he found his Google account was deactivated. Dylan has lost “approximately 7 years of correspondence, over 4,800 photographs and videos, my Google Voice messages, over 500 articles saved to my Google Reader account for scholarship purposes… all of my bookmarks… over 200 contacts… my Docs account… my Calendar access… [which includes] not only my own personal calendar of doctor’s appointments, meetings, and various other dates, but I have also lost collaborative calendars, of which I was the creator and of which several man hours were put into creating… saved maps and travel history… my website, a [B]logger account for which I purchased the domain through Google and designed myself” according to his Twitlonger post.

Dylan goes on to write he has been a loyal fan of Google, encouraging the company he works for to use Google Business Apps and purchase storage with Picasa, and encourgaing his friends and family to open a Google or Gmail account and use Google’s Chrome browser. He also goes on to slam Google for behaving in such an abusive, monopolistic fashion.

Note that Dylan went to Twitter to air his greivances? Remember that at one point rumor was that Google was about to buy Twitter? This incident is a prime example of why such an acquisition would have been a disaster for the computing public. Thankfully, it didn’t happen.

So, how do we protect ourselves from what happened to Dylan? Back up your data to a storage medium you physically control, whatever that may be. Keep multiple copies of things that are truly important. Back up everything as though Google’s (or Microsoft’s, Apple’s, etc.) datacenters will lose everything for everyone (or at least everything for you) sometime in the next week.

At the very least, it is a bad idea to trust one company (such as Google in Dylan’s case) with everything. I’m not sure if one can, for example, run both the Delicious and Google Bookmark plugins without fear of conflict. I know that a Gmail account can be accessed via IMAP and backed up using tools such as archivemail for Ubuntu. I don’t use Gmail for truly important email, but if I did, I would back it up with archivemail --copy --all and the appropriate URL and other switches.

If I am ever a significant adopter of cloud-based services at all, it will be a relatively late adoption. With the ubiquity of USB flash drives which can hold upwards of 4 gigabytes being easily affordable (some, such as this one made by LaCie even resemble a door/car key and can easily be carried on one’s existing keyring), I see no reason to put important data “on a server somewhere” which can go down when I least expect it. I have known of exactly two USB flash drives to fail during the timeframe I have used the technology; one (mine) was because I used it like a small hard drive for an Ubuntu install (it actually lasted for almost a year, though it did corrupt quite a bit of data during that time), and the other (my mom’s) failed due to a defective USB hub, apparently melting something plastic on the connector to the point where it won’t even insert into a USB port. My first USB flash drive, a 32 MB Memorex model (which at the latest probably dates from 2005), still works and has been used for everything from moving small quantities of documents to a boot medium as recently as this year.

That said, I still recommend optical discs such as CD-R, DVD-R, BD-R (recordable Blu-Ray), etc for long-term archival of data, particuarly data that should definitely not be changed after it has been written such as legal documents.

As noted above, Dylan did get his Google account back. However, the circumstances under which it was shut down deserve a rant of their own.

[To be continued…]