Google Docs lockout: It's fixed, Google says, but users fret over 'creepy monitoring'

A Google Docs glitch reminds users that the cloud's convenience can come at the expense of privacy and control.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

Some Google Docs users were told they couldn't access their files, while others reported them deleted.

Image: Google

Google has fixed a glitch in Docs that triggered panic for some who could no longer access or share files because Google's systems had ruled they violated its terms of service.

The problem left affected Google Docs users baffled when attempting to open files only to be told by Google that the item had been "flagged as inappropriate and can no longer be shared". Others were told they couldn't access the file, while some reported deleted files.

Around 100 users reported the issue on the Google Docs help forum and for several hours were anxiously awaiting a response and fix from Google.

National Geographic reporter Rachel Bale was surprised that her draft of a story about wildlife crime would be locked for a violation of Google's terms of service.

After hearing that others experienced the same problem, she figured it was a glitch -- rather than censorship -- but still noted she felt naive for not having considered that sharing drafts with her editor over Google Docs came at the cost of "creepy" monitoring. Her story was locked for about six hours, according to her Twitter timeline.

She added that she never puts "super-sensitive stories" in Google Docs.

Bhaskar Sunkar, founder of NY-based socialist magazine Jacobin, was also locked out of an article his team were finalizing on Eastern European post-socialist parties. The original author could view it, but the document couldn't be shared because Google thought it was inappropriate.

Before the fix arrived the issue created panic for Docs users who faced urgent deadlines. One user in this scenario was told by a Docs help forum volunteer that people at Google's office who could help couldn't be reached because they were not in the office yet due to time-zone differences.

A Google Docs community manager called Julianne has since clarified on the help forum that a "code push" from the morning incorrectly flagged some Docs files as abusive. Apparently Google now has "processes in place" to prevent a repeat.

"This issue should now be resolved and you should be able to access your files," she wrote.

"For more details, this morning, we made a code push that incorrectly flagged a small percentage of Google Docs as abusive, which caused those documents to be automatically blocked. A fix is in place and all users should have full access to their docs. Protecting users from viruses, malware, and other abusive content is central to user safety. We apologize for the disruption and will put processes in place to prevent this from happening again."

Leighton Pritchard, a computational biologist affected by the glitch, had previously been promoting Google Docs for collaboration work across institutions. This incident was a "deal-breaker", he tweeted. He was also not satisfied that Google had glossed over what the code push actually did.

"With no idea what the problem was, how can we assess the credibility of 'put processes in place to prevent this from happening again?'," he wrote.

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