Video: Google Docs adds collaboration muscle with big update
On Tuesday some Google Docs users got the nasty surprise of being locked out of files that Google's systems had flagged as inappropriate and in violation of its terms of service.
While many users understood the lockout was a glitch, the incident served as a reminder of the pitfalls of free cloud services when it comes to privacy and control.
One affected user said it was "creepy" that Google was monitoring her work. An academic who had promoted Google Docs for cross-institution collaboration said the lockout was a deal breaker since it could potentially cost researchers funding grants if it occurred on deadline.
Google said a "code push" wrongly flagged some Docs files as abusive and explained that protecting users from viruses, malware, and other abusive content was part of its user safety efforts.
Following the fix, which came about six hours after users first began reporting the lockout, Google has posted a response to the reaction it got from users.
"The blocking raised questions in the community, and we would like to address those questions here," said Mark Risher, Google's director of product management.
Google Docs, which is part of Drive, uses "static and dynamic antivirus techniques" to protect users from malware, phishing and spam, he explained.
Risher highlights that no humans at Google are actually looking at users' files while performing the scans.
"Virus and malware scanning is an industry best practice that performs automated comparisons against known samples and indicators; the process does not involve human intervention."
The bug that Google's engineers introduced on Tuesday caused Docs and Drive services to "misinterpret" the results of its malware scans, in turn causing it to "erroneously mark some files as terms-of-service (TOS) violations, thus causing access denials for users of those files".
Of course, as Google explains in its TOS, the other reason it scans your content is to personalize its service and deliver targeted advertising.
"Our automated systems analyze your content (including emails) to provide you personally relevant product features, such as customized search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection. This analysis occurs as the content is sent, received, and when it is stored."
And while Google's terms state that "you retain ownership of any intellectual property rights that you hold in that content" uploaded to its servers, you also give Google a worldwide license to do what it wants with that content.
"When you upload, submit, store, send or receive content to or through Google Drive, you give Google a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content.
"The rights you grant in this license are for the limited purpose of operating, promoting, and improving our services, and to develop new ones. This license continues even if you stop using our services unless you delete your content. Make sure you have the necessary rights to grant us this license for any content that you submit to Google Drive."
Previous and related coverage
A Google Docs glitch reminds users that the cloud's convenience can come at the expense of privacy and control.
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