Google acts stupid and evil

Google cuts off my email for 24 hours over a changed credit-card billing address.

Did I miss the news story about Google’s merger with Microsoft? “Don’t Be Evil” is a good slogan, but it does subject you to a higher standard than Google seems to want to live up to.

I use GMail. I use it a lot. I get about 100 emails a day, so I’ve come to depend on the feature that brings important and unread messages to the top.

Since I send and receive tons of documents – when you collaborate on writing books, files go back and forth and back and forth and back and forth – the storage usage piles up. Fine. I’m happy to pay Google $20 a year for space on their part of the Cloud.

About ten days ago, a message came in that my year was up and that my storage charge would automatically renew unless I stopped it. But there turns out to have been a hitch: because I’m about to spend five months on the road, I changed the billing address on my credit cards to my work address. So the charge bounced. Stuff happens.

But the notice from Google telling me it had bounced didn’t have “Google Account” as the “from” address. Instead, it came from an anonymous-looking “no-reply.” And the Gmail “important message” filter didn’t treat a message from Google telling me that my email was about to die as important. So I missed it. Stuff happens.

In the meantime, everything kept working, until an hour ago. At that point, two emails appeared (one from Google Account and one from no-reply) telling me that I had now lost my extra storage and couldn’t send or receive email until I fixed the credit card problem. (Not clear whether the people sending me messages I’m not getting know that I’m not getting them.) But just in case I missed the emails, the same notice appeared, in red, at he top of the GMail page.

Naturally, I clicked through, entered the new credit card information, and got back to work.

Not!

The clever folks at Google decided that while the cutoff is immediate and unwarned-of (except in those easily ignorable anonymous emails), the restoration process takes 24 hours. So for $20 I’m out of communication for a day. (Not being able to send is no problem; I have other accounts. But not being able to receive is crippling. That’s aside from the question whether all the stuff that’s now “over quota” is gone for good.)

It’s easy to think of six ways Google could have avoided this: sending the email from Google rather than from no-reply, sorting it into the “Important” folder, putting a warning of the impending cutoff at the top of the Gmail page, processing the order instantly, letting the service keep working for the 24-hour latency period, or having a live customer-service function.

Did I miss the news story about Google’s merger with Microsoft? “Don’t Be Evil” is a good slogan, but it does subject you to a higher standard than Google seems to want to live up to.

Anybody got a Plan B for an email client? Obviously, I can’t ever again put my ability to work at the mercy of these incompetents.

Update It’s 20 hours since Google took my payment and sent me an email confirming that fact. Still no email service. I tried sending myself an email from a different account, and it didn’t bounce back. So the people I’m not answering have no way of knowing that I’m not deliberately ignoring them.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

22 thoughts on “Google acts stupid and evil”

  1. “Reliable cloud provider” is just as much of a contradiction in terms as “honest Republican.” You cannot get find service providers that won’t screw you over at the drop of a hat at any price. The market does not work that way.

    The best you can do is get a domain, buy a 1U server, and and co-locate at a reputable data center. Colocation will cost you around $150 a month, but most data centers are less likely to screw over $1800/yr customers than cloud providers are likely to screw over $20/year customers.

  2. Infinite and instant global message transfers for $20 a year. It goes down for one day, and the provider is stupid and evil.

    Oh, the problems of 21st-century man …

    1. Your comment seems intended to blur the distinction between going down because of accidental disruptions at the service and losing access because of a series of poor policy decisions at the service. And they really are different things; in the former case, the service will generally apologize to the victim, while in the latter case, dolts will line up to tell the victim that it’s his own fault for being hit by other people’s bad decisions.

      1. I’ve no doubt Google could improve its service — and doing much of my own work by email, I know how vital it is and how disruptive breakdowns can be.

        But in that light, having mission-critical email service for 20 bucks a year is either a misguided expectation or a sign of truly astonishing technological progress, which me might stand and gaze at it in awe every once in a while.

  3. I don’t have any suggestions for a better email service, but Dropbox (http://db.tt/TTlA3ya) is a file-sharing system that makes collaboration a snap. (Well, the file-sharing part of collaboration, anyway.) If you need a lot of storage, it might be a little pricier than Gmail, but the first 2 GB is free, and you can earn up to another 6 GB by encouraging others to sign up.

    David Pogue sang Dropbox’s glories yesterday (http://pogue.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/20/dropbox-will-simplify-your-life/).

  4. More like amoral than evil; This is a particularly painful way for the customer to experience a missed payment, but I bet you’ll make sure you never miss a payment again.

    For my part, the day I trust my storage to the ‘cloud’ is the day I have no choice, and no sooner. I still remember losing all my music at mp3.com, when the RIAA won that suit, took over, and erased all the stored indy music MP3 was perfectly legally storing on behalf of the copyright owners.

    Always store your stuff under your physical control. It’s not like storage is expensive…

    1. More like amoral than evil; This is a particularly painful way for the customer to experience a missed payment, but I bet you’ll make sure you never miss a payment again.

      This isn’t always something you can control. I had only a single credit card for the best part of a decade – it was a perfectly good card, issued through a credit union I respect, and I’d never needed more, and never carried a balance. Then one day I got an email from Netflix informing me that I’d missed a direct-debit payment. Good thing, too, as I’d planned to use the card for my grocery shopping later that same day. Turned out some major retailer had lost control of their credit card database, and so Mastercard had cancelled a hundred thousand cards. I was supposed to have received a replacement, but it went astray, and no particular effort was made to catch up with me. All of a sudden, for about a week I had no credit card, and my direct-debits were affected.

  5. Google dropped the “don’t be evil” theme the day they went public. Now the theme they’re trying to live up to is “maximize shareholder profits”.
    The “cloud” is no place for critical data. It’s better not to cede control over something important to an entity which has it’s own best interests to worry about which aren’t aligned with yours. Obviously it’s more important to Google to wheedle that $20 out of you, and NOW, than it is to restore your service, and NOW. You can always take your business elsewhere, but you’ll still need to pony up at least this time to get access to all of your data to move it, and then you’ll be hard-pressed to find another service that works as well for the money, who wouldn’t do the same thing to you under the same circumstances.

    You’re undoubtedly too busy and travel too much to make running your own mail server practical, so your best bet would be a mitigation strategy, I believe. It’s easy to set up multiple free gmail accounts (I have several) and forward messages between them based on rule sets you can define. You could, for instance, set up an account for your collaborations and set up rules to automatically forward related correspondence from your “catch-all” account to that one. In that case you would still have access to your important collaboration data if your larger account were suspended, but it’s unclear whether or not any new mail coming into the catch-all account would continue to get forwarded, once it was suspended.

  6. Google doesn’t seem to have acted particularly egregiously here, although it isn’t apparent to me why they couldn’t restore your service immediately. What has saved my bacon in the past is that my email address is just a pass-through which I can repoint to a different mail service if required, so if my primary mailbox becomes unusable for some reason I can just change where the incoming mail is redirected.

  7. Credit card companies should have an ap for that which pushes changes to all qualified auto-renew merchants and I should get a small royalty for publishing the idea.

  8. I’ll second the “if you are sending files back and forth, use dropbox”; I’ve used it for two years, for everything from MySQL databases to text files, and it works really well.

  9. I think that you will find thatGMail has probably bounced mails back to sender that couldn’t be delivered. I would also imagine that your email will be available to you in 24 hours.

    There are two (three counting web mail) email protocols available from Google (or at least there used to be) ; pop and imap – Their primary difference being that with pop you generally download your mail to your client machine and imap leaves it in the gmail cloud and delivers it up to your desktop email client upon request. I am assuming that you are using imap (thereby guaranteeing (as long as you pay your bills) that the mail is always available to you).

    Dropbox would be a good solution for handling/sharing manuscripts between collaborators I’m not sure how you are handling revision control now – kinda sounds like you just keep piling the manuscripts up in your GMail account.

    1. IIRC, the paid version of Dropbox handles revisions and version control (a presenter was discussing how his workgroup used it), and is available at a very reasonable yearly rate.

  10. The recommendations regarding using dropbox to share files are sound.

    If, however, you want to keep your work-flow the same, here are some things to manage your saved mail better, perhaps keeping the volume below a level requiring the premium service.

    Set up your mail processing to use POP to forward archived gmail to your local computer. Use filters to archive documents with attachments. Then you have a repository backing up your larger mail, and you can choose to periodically delete the gmail archive items having a certain longevity (lowering your overall disk usage).

    Use filters and labels to automatically categorize incoming and/or outgoing mail belonging to a particular project or colaboration. When you have completed the project, use the label to select mail for deletion or archiving.

    Also, you should read James Fallows’s recounting of his brush with account hijacking. As a security professional working until recently at another large web mail provider, I can confirm that the scenario he describes matches a large number (> 50%) of the account compromises we saw. Here is the link:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/11/hacked/8673/?single_page=true

  11. Never, never, never rely on any machine out of your direct control to store mail or anything else important; I agree wholeheartedly with everyone who’s said any variant of this. Browser interfaces that store mail on other servers are fine when you’re away from your own computers, but clients that store mail locally are really the only way to protect your content.

    And re Warren Terra’s story. If you can, you should have one credit card that you use only for internet shopping. Use it for all internet purchases or spending of any kind, don’t use it for anything else, and don’t use any other card for anything net-related. That will limit the damage if online merchants are compromised, and will give you a good and easy way to spot anything going screwy with your cards. It won’t protect you if the issuer gets hacked, but nothing could, and you’ll have enough company that the issuer will have to act.

  12. Mark:
    What a number of folks do is register an internet domain and have email delivered to it. For email, there is a DNS record which is a pointer to the actual server where the mail is processed and can live. You can run your own (kind of a headache if you aren’t so inclined) or use a service like mailstreet.com (one example). Now these services have a monthly fee, but they do tend to actually have customer service. Just keep the domain registration paid for, and you are good. An outfit like mailstreet is Exchange based, and has options to use just the basic account or you could tie in with mobile devices. If you need to move to a different provider, you just sign up with them and have the DNS record for mail changed to the new provider. The change is transparent to your email…however, you would have to make sure you have local copies of the server based mail from the old provider.

    Have to agree on the whole cloud thing. I do prefer to do my own local storage, and use either NAS with Raid or multiple redundant single disk devices. If you are on the road a lot, it probably is worth having a pair or so of the lightweight USB drives (eg seagate freeagent) to do backups.


  13. Since I send and receive tons of documents – when you collaborate on writing books, files go back and forth and back and forth and back and forth – the storage usage piles up. Fine. I’m happy to pay Google $20 a year for space on their part of the Cloud.

    This seems to be the nub of the issue — a large amount of storage of many drafts, with minor changes, of the same document.
    I don’t collaborate with others, so I have no strong opinions on the subject, but friends I have who DO collaborate tell me that doing so by mail files back and forth is not just a hassle (in terms like the storage you have seen) but is outright an inefficient way to do things. They recommend

    – if you insist on using your existing writing tools (MS Word or whatever) that you shuttle the files back and forth via shared storage like DropBox. This step is REALLY easy, a minuscule change to your current habits.

    – slightly more sophisticated is: you might want a record of previous drafts. You could do this by just being disciplined on your computer — each time you mail out a new draft, create a dated folder and copy the new draft into that folder. Alternatively, if you are on Mac, you could rely on a trail of Time Machine backups (which might be good enough). Alternatively you could learn how to use a source code control system, but that’s probably more effort than it’s worth.

    – most sophisticated of all would be to switch to doing the writing as a collaborative exercise via something like Google Docs (or SubEthaEdit — if you have a mac and don’t trust the cloud — I assume there is an equivalent of SubEthaEdit for Windows but I don’t know what it is). Both of these make (or can make) writing a very much more team affair, which each author able to see in realtime what the other is doing and modify it. Obviously this sort of thing appeals to some writing collaborations, and sounds hideous to others. But even if you don’t want the realtime collaboration, this allows for a SINGLE “true” copy of the document at all times, rather than different people holding different copies with different mods which then have to be stitched back together. Switching to these types of tools means learning both a new way of working, and a new set of editing commands — which is, yes, a pain. But my friends tell me that it is well worth the one month or so of hassle and learning curve.

    Regardless of which of these options you choose, what this could allow you to do is
    – move all your old mail into a local store (again easy on Mac, I’ve no idea about Windows)
    – delete that old mail from your Google store
    – thereby shrinking your Google store to only a few GB, not costing you $20 a year, and avoiding future problems.

  14. Google does not understand customer service at all. From chatting with folks who work(ed) at Google, every single channel that customers can access gets saturated immediately. About the only way to get enough attention at Google to get anything done is to make a stink on the internet, or personally know someone who works at Google.

    Based on how big they are, and how many fingers in how many pies they have, my guess is that Google will need to hire around 10,000+ customer service reps.

  15. Bank of America just charged me $40 for a free lock box. No number answers, no email works, no customer service is able to accept an email.

    I just love the big monopolies, don’t you?

  16. A few months ago, GMail removed the navigation toggles that allow you to sort your folders by date or by name – the sort of thing even MSFT lets you do. While Google said this was for “ease of navigation,” for me at least it means I have to spend an inordinate amount of time deleting old emails – precisely because I NEVER want my GMail storage to approach its limit. I used to be able to easily invert the All Mail folder and delete everything older than say a year. Fine with me, I do not need it. Now, it has become a major project. As much as I appreciate the ease of the service, I would certainly be open to jumping ship because of this.

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