Dear Google: What exactly can you do with my content?

The doughnut is mine. Right?Pink Sherbet Photography / Foter

Dear Google,

I never read your terms of service (TOS) until Google Drive came out.

A lot of writers had a lot to say about Drive and the TOS:

  1. Rafe Needleman says, “… the problem is that Google’s one-size-fits-all-services terms of service agreement is too vague. Legally, it does leave Google with an unreasonable amount of leeway regarding user files.”
  2. The AP says, “…the worries are probably unfounded” and that “…the everyday occurrences such as someone watching a video or pulling up a text file at an Internet cafe requires Google to retain permission to ‘publicly perform’ or ‘publicly display’ such content” on FirstPost.
  3. Cult of Mac goes to the extreme, saying the TOS gives “Google a license to use all of your stored documents and photos for pretty much whatever it likes.”
  4. Zack Whittaker says, “there’s no definitive boundary that keeps Google from using what it likes from what you upload to its service.”
  5. The Verge unfavorably compares Drive’s policy to Skydrive’s and Dropbox’s.
  6. Artstechnica says it’s more about being careful with your privacy settings on files uploaded to Drive.

For reference, here is a portion of what I bet are the most famous TOS ever written:

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.

It seems to me the TOS apply to all Google services, not just Drive, so whatever problems are being highlighted now have been problems all along, if they are problems at all.

Google, is there a problem here?

First, you tell me I keep “intellectual property rights” to content I dump into your services. All right. Nice.

But then you tell me that you get a “worldwide license” to my content for a “limited purpose of operating, promoting, and improving our Services, and to develop new ones.”


I’m not sure what you mean by content. So let’s be cautious, and define “content” as broadly as possible: anything that I put on any Google service.

So e-mails, text messages on Google voice, spreadsheets uploaded to or made in Google Docs, photos in Picasa, comments on Blogger, and even that weird video of a banana and robot costume I dropped onto YouTube … all of that is content. You, Google, can use it with that “limited worldwide license.”

But how limited is “limited”? Who defines the “limited purpose”? Is my last e-mail to my mom going to show up in a commercial on YouTube made by Google’s marketing team? Will you even tell me it’s used? What portions are used? Why they are used? Will I be compensated? Will I have a say? Will be I identified if they’re used?

I’m assuming a loose “no” to all of the above. I understand that machines scan the stuff I upload to Google. That all my words and pictures and videos and searches get dumped into a pit that swirls around and makes a digital picture of me. Yet my identity somehow gets anonymized. That digital me figures out what ads to put in my Gmail. It influences my search results.

But surely I don’t have to worry about … I mean, it would just be ridiculous …

It’s crazy to think Google would do this: appropriate my “content” and do what it wanted with it, in a way that shares my content in a manner that I did not agree to, in a way that connects me to the content whether I want to be connected or not.

Surely, Google, you would not do that. Who would ever use your services if you did?

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