From the 'sometimes it's just not fair' dept ...
The news that several dozen Gmail users have irrevocably lost the contents of their email inboxes, apparently due to hackers exploiting a Firefox bug, provides conclusive* proof that Gmail's retention policy really is as minimal as the company claims (the emphasis in this excerpt is Google's own):
Some news stories have suggested that Google intends to keep copies of users' email messages even after they've deleted them, or closed their accounts. This is simply not true. Google keeps multiple backup copies of users' emails so that we can recover messages and restore accounts in case of errors or system failure. Even if a message has been deleted or an account is no longer active, messages may remain on our backup systems for some period of time. This is standard practice in the email industry, which Gmail and other major webmail services follow in order to provide a reliable service for users. We will make reasonable efforts to remove deleted information from our systems as quickly as is practical.
In the case of the unfortunate 60 users affected, "as quickly as is practical" has turned out to be way too soon, as there's now no backup of the deleted emails. So in its efforts to avoid being labeled as evil by privacy advocates, Gmail's data retention policy has ended up harming user's interests by giving them no fall-back in the event of a catastrophic deletion event.
* Conspiracy theorists of course will now have a field day, alleging that Google does in fact have a covert backup but is unable to resort to it to help out the affected users because it would be a PR disaster of unimaginable scale to admit to there being such a backup having already denied its existence.
What I can't understand is why Gmail doesn't offer data backup as a premium service. Then users could define their own retention policy.
The idea, by the way, that users are going to keep their own private backup somewhere else, as Google's PR rep suggested in an email to TechCrunch, is patently absurd. The whole point of storing email in the cloud, surely, is to avoid having to download hundreds of megabytes to your hard disk every night just in case the service falls over. Backing up to somewhere else in the cloud isequally inane, even though I'm sure Amazon would be delighted to have Gmail users signing up for its S3 disk-in-the-cloud service to get the peace of mind on data recovery that Gmail cannot now offer.