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.