Apr 24, 2012

Judge Google Drive (and competitors) by their Terms of Service


Google is releasing the so much pre-announced Google Drive in these hours. Social Media websites are spreading the buzz since months. In particular, The Verge has already posted a comparison between all cloud-based storage/backup/share services (will refer to them as cloud-storage services from now on), including the new Google product. Engadget has also written a shorter, similar post. Other reviews and comparisons will surely follow.

I do not think that Google Drive is better than its competitors. I think that it looks even more evil than its competitors.

When comparing such cloud-storage services only the obvious criteria are taken into account – e.g. space, free space at signup, max file-size for transfers, monthly fee for premium accounts and so on.
If we only compare them in this terms Google Drive seems a winner, by offering 5GB at signup and $4.99 per month for 100GB. Google Docs integration is a plus, as well. Then, why do I think that is is not better than its competitors, such as Dropbox and SugarSync?

One of the most important criterion is never taken into account when comparing cloud-storage services, that is the rights granted to the company about your data. Google Drive uses Google’s new unified TOS and Privacy text. Yes, it does. Nothing new is added. What has really changed with Google Drive? It is the interpretation of that text. In their “Your Content in our Services” section, Google states the following (emphasis added):

[..] Some of our Services allow you to submit content. You retain ownership of any intellectual property rights that you hold in that content. In short, what belongs to you stays yours.

When you upload or otherwise submit content to our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) 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 (for example, for a business listing you have added to Google Maps). Some Services may offer you ways to access and remove content that has been provided to that Service. [..]

In Google Drive, the content is your files. Put it in capital letters in your mind:


Even if you are still the copyright holder of your files, you automatically release Google a license that grants Google to do whatever it wants with them. This continues after you (eventually) leave the service.

Let’s see what two Google Drive competitors write in their TOS.

Dropbox (TOS page)

You retain full ownership to your stuff. We don’t claim any ownership to any of it. These Terms do not grant us any rights to your stuff or intellectual property except for the limited rights that are needed to run the Services, as explained below.

We may need your permission to do things you ask us to do with your stuff, for example, hosting your files, or sharing them at your direction. This includes product features visible to you, for example, image thumbnails or document previews. It also includes design choices we make to technically administer our Services, for example, how we redundantly backup data to keep it safe. You give us the permissions we need to do those things solely to provide the Services. [..]
To be clear, aside from the rare exceptions we identify in our Privacy Policy, no matter how the Services change, we won’t share your content with others, including law enforcement, for any purpose unless you direct us to.

This sounds different, doesn’t it? What about SugarSync?

SugarSync (TOS page)

In order to make the Service available to you, we need your permission to sync and store your Files. Accordingly, you hereby grant to SugarSync a license: (i) to use, copy, transmit, distribute, store and cache Files that you choose to sync and/or store; and (ii) to copy, transmit, publish, and distribute to others the Files as you designate, whether through the sharing or public linking features of the Service, in each case solely to provide the Service to you.

Your Files are not accessible by third parties unless you elect to make them available to others through the Service. We respect the privacy and confidentiality of your Files, so we agree never to disclose your Files to anyone unless you instruct us to do so or a court orders us to disclose them, as provided in our Privacy Policy.

Even if it sounds more similar to Google Drive TOS, it is completely different and more like DropBox TOS. The files belong to you, nobody else can access to them unless you desire it to happen.

SpiderOak (TOS page) is even more extreme, because it does not even store your password and nobody else besides you can see your data. I don’t quote them but I invite you to read their TOS as well.

Google Drive does not seem to me a better alternative than other cloud-storage services. Indeed, it looks even more malicious and intrusive than the competitors.
Will Google internally perform analysis on your files in order to improve its other services? Almost certainly.
Will Google release the analysis to 3rd party companies? It could be.
Will Google share your private files to 3rd party companies? Probably not.
Will Google take some of your files, modify them and release them to the public? I do not think so.

The fact is that if Google desires to, it can do all the previously mentioned actions. You give it the permissions. Is Google Drive so much evil as I paint it? It is up to you to decide. It is up to you give a price to your data but inform yourself.

Today I took Google Drive as example but many other services need careful read of their TOSs.

We can never repeat it too much: always read the Terms of Service before sign up.

(featured image taken from @arnoudwokke tweet)

Update 2012-04-25: The Verge posted a similar article to my post. I am very happy to see that someone else (someone much more bigger and known than me) is reporting about the issues of TOSs. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to explain the implications to the users – look at many of the comments in there.

written by dgraziotin

Dr. Daniel Graziotin received his PhD in computer science, software engineering at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, Italy. His research interests include human aspects in empirical software engineering with psychological measurements, Web engineering, and open science. He researches, publishes, and reviews for venues in software engineering, human-computer interaction, and psychology. Daniel is the founder of the psychoempirical software engineering discipline and guidelines. He is associate editor at the Journal of Open Research Software, academic editor at the Research Ideas and Outcomes (RIO) journal, and academic editor at the Open Communications in Computer Science journal. He is the local coordinator of the Italian Open science local group for the Open Knowledge Foundation. He is a member of ACM, SIGSOFT, and IEEE.

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