Stop the Google Drive Terms of Service Bogeyman hunt

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Stop the Google Drive Terms of Service Bogeyman hunt
Everyone loves to stir the pot and engage in some solid fear-mongering whenever it comes to privacy on the Internet, especially when it comes to Google products and services, but it needs to stop, because all we're getting are biased voices that benefit from having people riled up about any potential problem. As we explained back when Google first united its privacy policies, there is huge value to be had for you by Google using this language, and now it seems we need to give a refresher on the other side of that equation: the possible threats. Of course, there are those out there already trying to paint Google's TOS as trouble, as we told you earlier today.


Before we take a look at what people see as a problem, let's just take a look at the points of Google's policy that continually get overlooked. First, Google expressly states in its Terms of Service: 

That's pretty plain English stating that what is yours is yours, no troubles there. 

Second (and most commonly overlooked) is from Googles Privacy Policy, which states: 

So, if you take those two things together, here's what you get (and this applies to Google Drive and most other Google products): you own your data, and no one gets to see your data unless you say so, someone higher in your organization says so (domain admin), or a judge says so (legal purposes). The external processing seems like an outlier, but really that's to cover hooked in services. For example, Google has to be able to share your data with Aviary if you have the app connected to your Google Drive. 

Out of context

While people tend to ignore, or downplay the importance of the above sections of Google's terms and policy, there is one piece of the Terms of Service that is always quoted. The part of the TOS that is always taken out of context is this: 

If you didn't have the context from above, that sounds pretty scary, right? It is often said that this part of the TOS underminds the pieces quoted above, because it is "too vague", which is only true insofar as the terms must cover 60+ products, but actually it is quite the opposite. Legal experts claim it gives Google too much leeway in using your files, but that simply isn't true given the terms of Google's Privacy Policy. 

The first bunch of verbs ("host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works") all cover the process of making your content useful. If Google can't host or store your content, it disappears, which is of no help to you. If Google can't reproduce your content, it would be impossible to have the syncing across devices that makes Google Drive, Music, or Photos useful. Modifying and derivative works covers anything from auto-correct in a document to translations or fixing the color of a photograph. 

Then, the last few pieces ("communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute") covers being able to share your content, but only if the requirements are met from the Privacy Policy above. This means that Google can post your photos, videos or docs to Google+, but only if you say so (or for some odd reason a judge says so.) The same goes for e-mail, or even sharing a link. 

The Bogeyman vs actual harm

Knowing all of that, what exactly is the problem? The problem is that people want to find fault without due cause. People love to talk about the potential threats without looking at the likelihood or the possibility that those threats could become real. Sure, it's possible that Google will send the pictures of you sunburned and crying on a Jamaican beach to everyone on Earth, or use it as a Google Doodle, but that would give you full rights to sue Google for breaking its own Privacy Policy. Everyone loves to look for the Bogeyman in all of this, but here's what people never consider: what would be the benefit of Google misusing your data? 

Google has already seen the negative side of making a mistake with user data after the debacle of Google Buzz, and that was just a mistake, not an active misuse of content. Google's entire business plan relies on having a good relationship with users. If people don't trust Google, Google gets no data, and can't sell you ads. Google could certainly take advantage of that trust, but the repercussions would hurt every product that Google has. 

So, here's a crazy idea: let's not pounce on Google (or any other company for that matter) for a potential problem, if that company has given no reason to ever be mistrusted. We get huge amounts of value from these products: they allow us to be more social, more productive, learn easier, and find entertainment any time we want. Sure, any of these companies can treat us badly, or misuse our data, but there's no reason to do that. As we've explained before, there is a big difference between "personal data" and "personally identifiable data", and the key to the personal data trade is for companies to use the former, while protecting the latter. So far, Google has done a very good job of that, so maybe we should wait and see if Google actually does something wrong, rather than attacking just because we can imagine the possible Bogeyman.



13. dynamiclynk

Posts: 1; Member since: Sep 17, 2009

To Vague for my taste. With all of the suits won because of vague contracts I think I shall stay away from this. Dropbox and Microsoft Live Drive are total opposite of the Google TOS.

10. roscuthiii

Posts: 2383; Member since: Jul 18, 2010

Thank you yet again Michael for the meat and potatoes of the issue when everyone else is just being salty.

11. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

Ha! Love that phrase. Feels like a Caribbean saying to me.

9. dwroberts unregistered

Before I start, I'm really not trying to pick a fight - just trying to contribute to a great article! The key problem is not "ownership", but use (and abuse) of uploaded material. For example, if a singer records a song, and then stores it on your hard drive, you could say that he owns the copyright. But it doesn't matter if you have a license to copy, distribute and sell copies of the song. Google doesn't say that it will sell photos that you upload to Picasa (or Google+). But the legal jargon is deliberately vague: what exactly is involved in "operating, promoting and improving" services? Selling your photos to make more profits for Google? As far as I'm concerned, you should never sign a contract which allows something on the grounds that you don't think it will happen. It doesn't matter if it doesn't happen today or tomorrow... you have signed away rights to your material. You just have to "trust" Google not to use the powers that you have given them. At the end of the day, Google could clarify all of this immediately by saying that they will not sell or distribute material that you upload to their servers. The fact that they don't should concern anyone that uses Google.

6. Fluxman

Posts: 51; Member since: Jun 03, 2010

Great article. I always see people jump on this part of the TOC without actual understanding it and the context. Sometime people just need to chill...

2. ngo2dd

Posts: 896; Member since: Jul 08, 2011

We all know how google make money. It is off ads, so even if google don't sell or own the information that you up to cloud, they still use it to collect data on you. That is why many of their service are free or cheaper. Android is free for a reason. I love android but people on this website is not dumb enough to think google is collecting our data.

3. PackMan

Posts: 277; Member since: Mar 09, 2012

Yes, and Google is completely open about it unlike many other companies.

4. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

No one thinks that Google isn't collecting data, but we need to remember the difference between using personal data (aka some dude in the Boston area likes How I Met Your Mother and owns Android products) to sell adds, compared to personally identifiable data (aka Michael Thomas Heller from Waltham likes...). Google has the personally identifiable data, but can't do anything with it without your consent, and only sells the personal data for ads. Very big difference there.

7. Fluxman

Posts: 51; Member since: Jun 03, 2010

In fact, they don't even sell your info for ads. They have your info in their servers, and they have a bunch of companies that advertise. The ones that pay more, get the name higher on a list that google uses to send ads to you. None of your info leaves their servers, they are the handlers of all the info. Better yet, algorithms do it so not even real people will see that.

8. ZEUS.the.thunder.god unregistered

excellent article Michael. but i think the previous article on the same subject by Daniel P. was quite misleading. i am glad you rectified that.

1. Scott_H

Posts: 167; Member since: Oct 28, 2011

Excellent article Michael. And Google's privacy policy is actually quite a bit more generous to users than some of the other cloud storage services (while the ToS are about the same, since you have to be able to move stuff around and share it user-selected people in order to offer a cloud drive service at all).

5. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011


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