Update #2, 11/17 at 8pm: Google has reactivated the suspended accounts!
Here is the message that they each received:
“Hello Google user,
Your Google Account was suspended as part of our fraud prevention efforts, based on violations of our Terms of Service and Terms of Sale for Devices. After reviewing your appeal, we are re-enabling your account.
Google takes violations of our terms very seriously, and we ask that you review relevant terms and product policies to ensure that you understand them. Repeated violations of our terms may lead to account termination.
In order to access your Google account, please sign in. When you sign in, you will be asked to verify a security code via SMS. Once you verify the code, you will be able to access your account again.
Last but not least, we wanted to remind you that Google users can always export and download their data from Google products like Gmail, Photos, and Drive while their account is active. In a few easy steps, you can create an archive to keep for your records or backup your data to another service. More information about backing up your data can be found at google.com/takeout.”
I find it hard to understand why Google only allows you to download your data if your account is active. They claim the data belongs to you, but if you violate any of their terms you will lose the ability to retrieve your data.
Update, 11/17 at 6:30pm: This story has gone viral in the 25 hours since I published it and has been covered by The Guardian, Consumerist, PCMag, Engadget, Mashable, Ars Technica, Reddit, Hacker News, and more.
My hope was for that to get Google’s attention and put pressure on them to respond.
And indeed Google has just sent me the following statement,
“We identified a scheme in which consumers were asked to purchase Pixel devices on behalf of a reseller, who then marked-up the cost of those devices in order to resell them to other customers. We prohibit the commercial resale of devices purchased through Project Fi or the Google Store so everyone has an equal opportunity to purchase devices at a fair price. Many of the accounts suspended were created for the sole purpose of this scheme. After investigating the situation, we are restoring access to genuine accounts for customers who are locked out of many Google services they rely on.”
As of yet none of the suspended accounts have been restored, but hopefully that will happen soon and I’ll update this post again when that occurs. Google did not respond with a timeframe of when they can expect to regain access to their accounts. Many people have been devastated by losing their access to Google services over terms that they didn’t read. They’re not blameless, but let’s face it, how many non-lawyers actually read all the terms?
Kudos to Google for agreeing to restore their online identities. I still wonder though if a human authorized the account suspensions or if it was triggered by an algorithm. Either way, it’s scary to think about how much power Google has over our lives.
As for me, I got my Google Takeout order today and plan to request backups of my Google data on a weekly basis. Many others have moved their email to private servers and other hosts in order to diversify their online presence in case they ever run afoul of Google’s terms.
Will you be changing where you store you data based on this story?
Originally posted on 11/16 at 5PM:
Several DDF members are reporting that they have not been able to access their Google accounts over the past few days.
This is the error message they encounter when trying to login:
They also got an email stating that all of their data will be deleted if they do not successfully appeal their suspension:
It turns out the common denominator is that they had all bought Google Pixel phones and shipped them to a phone dealer in New Hampshire who paid them a profit on each phone. There is no sales tax in New Hampshire and the phones are then resold to others.
The problem is that many of them didn’t read the terms that they agreed to when buying the phone from the Google store. Those state “You may only purchase Devices for your personal use. You may not commercially resell any Device, but you may give the Device as a gift.”
I did some research and found the dealer, who feels awful about the situation. There are over 200 people who are locked out of their Google accounts currently. Some of those people used multiple Google accounts in order to place orders for more than 5 phones and they are locked out of all of the accounts. The dealer is more than happy to return all the phones to Google if it will rectify the situation.
The dealer has been ordering phones from Google in this manner since the original Nexus and has never had an issue. In total a few thousand phones were ordered this time, which is fewer phones than were ordered in the past. However this time was the first time that they were ordered through Project Fi, as they were shipping out faster that way. The phones were all ordered at the full retail price and about 500 orders were cancelled by Google.
Google has apparently closed the accounts of everyone who shipped their phones directly to his address in New Hampshire, regardless of how many phones the account ordered or whether the phones actually shipped or were cancelled by Google.
The account closure includes all of Google’s services. The people affected don’t have access to Gmail, Google Drive, Google Voice, or anything from Google. They don’t have any access to gift cards, bills, travel confirmations, work documents, etc that were saved in their Gmail accounts.
Worse yet, emails that are sent to their Gmail accounts are being bounced back as undeliverable. Even if Google relents and reactivates their accounts they will never know what emails they missed while the account was locked.
Some people had family photos saved in their drive that are now lost. It’s the 21st century version of losing priceless mementos in a house fire.
Some people are also locked out of other online accounts that require email authentication, which of course they can no longer access. Many accounts require email access in order to change a password or update your email. There’s a world of pain in store for people who have lost their primary email account.
I’m not defending those who violated the terms of the sale, but I do think it is heavy-handed for Google to block access to all of their services for doing so. Was violating Google’s phone resale policy really worthy of an effective digital death penalty?
One DDF member even claims that his Google account, that didn’t order a phone, was banned just for having a recovery account that was banned for ordering a phone.
Quite frankly it’s scary to think about how much I rely upon Google for everyday life. Losing everything that I’ve accumulated with Google for the past 15 years would be devastating.
There are a few lessons here for everyone:
1. Don’t mess around with Google or any company that you simply can’t live without.
I’m guilty of this myself and it’s a good thing that they didn’t have this kind of account auditing in place when my friends and I passed hundreds of thousands of dollars around with Google Checkout when they were offering free credit card processing in 2006. The boatload of free miles were great, but were not enough to live without Google. Then again, Google wasn’t as critical to my day to day life 10 years ago.
2. Ignorance of the terms isn’t an excuse, so be sure to read them.
3. Backup your Google data often with Google Takeout. That page is not accessible if you are banned. I’ve already started the process of having my information delivered to me so that I can back it up locally and plan on doing so on a regular basis in the future.
People who have not been able to access their accounts have appealed to Google and that appeal is still in process.
It seems to me that a warning should have been issued before closing account access. At a bare minimum Google should have allowed emails to be sent to their accounts and not bounce back to the sender as undeliverable during the appeal process. And at the very least they should be allowed to download their saved data.
But hopefully they quickly get back access to their Gmail and other vital Google services where they weren’t in violation of Google’s terms.
I know that Google employees read this blog. Back when Google Wallet required you to receive money from another person in order to be able to send money to others there was a conga made on DDF that grabbed the attention of the director of Google Wallet. He was amazed by the concept and even stuck around to answer people’s questions. If anyone working at Google does read this I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Of course this leads to bigger questions on a national scale about what is or isn’t ours when it’s stored in the cloud? Should there be government legislation guaranteeing people access to their data?
Share your thoughts in the comments.