I can see that got your attention! The technology age we live in forces us to adopt a certain lifestyle, peruse an ever-increasing number of services and give information about ourselves to an ever-increasing number of people, or corporations… owned by people. E-mail services, social networks, phone companies, e-commerce websites and even the shoe store wants some information about you. What data do you give and how much do you care? What happens to it and what if one day you wake up realising it’s pretty much out of your control? Have you asked yourself if you depend too much on any services or companies and freely share, give, upload and store too much information about yourself? What if one day, all this will turn against you? What if some day, your access to it is cut off? What then?

The reason for this article is a recent experience I’ve had related to an online service – Gmail, and I’ve come to realise that I might be finding myself in a similar situation with other companies too.

Recently I’ve started a few small websites for various purposes, I have some ideas for blogs I’ve been meaning to write for a long time and never really put in the effort to get them out there. To help in this process, I’ve registered a few domain names, purchased some hosting, and… signed up for a few e-mail accounts to use in connection to those websites, with… Gmail.

All good, Gmail is free, I say, I don’t want to invest in a paid e-mail service upfront to get an e-mail address for such small websites and blogs, since if they don’t take off, then the investment is minimal. In wanting to keep things separate and, as some online marketing ‘gurus’ recommend, I’ve tried to set up a separate e-mail account for each website. This is important if you want to sign up for various services such as e-mail marketing platforms, various plugins that require an account to give you an API key and even to set up blog commenting and other notifications. Maybe, down the line, who knows, a blog becomes popular and you want to have a virtual assistant help you with the posting, the writing, the management – then you don’t want to give that person access to your main e-mail account, so they can just keep on going with that separate e-mail related to the blog or website they are managing for you.

What could go wrong?

Nothing out of the ordinary, I’ve gone and set up a couple e-mail accounts with good ol’ Gmail. Now, Google, and pretty much every corporation under the sun will have the same marketing speak on their ‘sign up’ page:

Come to us! We are the best! Our service is completely FREE. No strings attached. We give you such and such feature, all free, so much storage space, so much this or that. We are such a friendly company, look at us, our team consists of hipster cool guys and gals who have nothing to do but drink coffee in Starbucks all day and manage these wonderful cute little servers we host your data on – why don’t you give us all the information and get on with it… what could go wrong?

Well, everything could go wrong. And let me explain: Gmail requires a phone number for verification to make sure that you are not a robot. So, because I’m a non-robot human being of good faith, I give them my mobile phone number (of which I currently have only one). All great, the first account was set up, I get on with my work, signing up for other services, registering for various accounts and pretty much getting on with my newfound blogging life.

Then I set up another e-mail account for a second website, a day later. Again, they want my phone. I share the same phone, get the verification message and get on with my life thinking: this is easy! The next day? Surprise, surprise! BOTH my fluffy accounts are locked. By this time, I had not even had the chance to send a single e-mail from either of them. Hey, Google, what’s going on?

Your account has been locked due to violation of our policies.

What? It’s not April 1st, so what is the violation? No response, just silence. I challenge the decision using the online form they supply. I ask for some clarification as to why my accounts were locked. Nothing. A few minutes later, an e-mail comes in:

Your account is locked, please read our policies and terms and conditions and if you feel that this has been done in error, please feel free to reply with any new information you have that might explain the situation.

I reply with a polite message (for both accounts) saying that I’ve read the policies three times (yes, I actually did) and could not find anything in there that I could have done. If I were a spammer, registering multiple accounts and bombarding people with spam and scams, I would not challenge this ONE bit. But I really, honestly did not have any malicious intentions and did not even get a chance to use the cute and fluffy and free e-mail account I was promised.

After a few more hours from my reply, another blunt, generic e-mail message finds its way in:

We have decided that our decision stands. Good bye.

Getting a little personal there?

I take this up with the Google support forums. A friendly person on the forums offered to ‘obtain more information’ (a Google insider, perhaps?), about the problem, and asked for my support ticket number, to only later come back and tell me that ‘Google has told me that there’s nothing more they can do and the accounts cannot be reinstated.’

Fine. I was not emotionally attached to those e-mail accounts, I had no information in them yet and I can always get new ones, right? Well, maybe.

This gets even worse. I thought, perhaps Google noticed that I signed up for 2 different accounts from the same IP address in a short time – one day apart. So, just to check this point, I go to another location and try to sign up for a new account. Nothing! The generic message strikes again:

We cannot service your request for a new account at this time.

This sounds more like one of those technical issues and perhaps my connection is not very good, there’s a timeout somewhere. I try again, and again, and again. Nothing. By this time, the whole thing became personal. Why does Google have it in for me? What have I done? Are they suspecting me of something? Should I be worried for my other accounts I have with them? You see, when you create a new account, they also ask you for a ‘secondary, verification or backup e-mail’. So if I gave them my personal account I really care for, they now have established a link between them. The same thing happens with the phone number.

I have a Gmail account I’ve been using for about 9 years. As I said in the title of this post, I think I could say I ‘have my life’ in that account, like, I am sure, many others out there. I may have a ton (or a few ton) of e-mails I’ve exchanged over the years for business partners, friends, colleagues. There are lots of code snippets and tricks I’ve learned from my best friend who is a programmer like me, that I like to go back and refer to sometimes. Yes, I’ve heard of Evernote, thanks. I have a lot of extra space on Google Drive that I am paying for, with pretty much ALL my work and important files. I have several hundred YouTube videos archived in my account that is signed up with the same e-mail account. I have some documents scanned in the Google Drive, receipts, invoices, documents with serial numbers for software applications I’ve purchased over the years. What if Google decides that one day, this account is ‘locked’ and ‘cannot be reinstated’?

At that moment, I’d realised I had never seriously asked myself this question. Sure, I have other accounts, but this one is THE ONE. If I lose this account today, I’m pretty much lost. Yeah, I may have some copies of some things on my home server but not everything. That’s what I’m paying for, right? I ‘know’ that good ol’ Google watches out for me and my files, e-mails, videos, documents are ‘safe’ in the care of the Almighty Google. Well, are they? Can I protect these from Google itself?

No free meal

What this experience has taught me is that when it comes to a free service (and sometimes even with a non-free one), there are simply no guarantees. In the relationship with big corporations, a single individual can find him or herself talking to a wall. A huge, thick wall, where nobody listens.

To conclude my story, I believe I managed to trip one of Google’s robot/spam filters in that I have signed up with the same verification mobile phone. Going to a new location and signing up for a new account with my wife’s phone number made the whole thing work – no more error messages, no more warnings and no more account locked. I am a web developer and over time I’ve built hundreds of websites, created tons of e-mail accounts, hosting accounts, social media and so on. My name and e-mail is saved everywhere in a larger number of online properties or ‘clouds’ as it were.

I’m not one to find fault where there isn’t any but again, one can’t help but feel like this is personal when things like this happen, and all avenues of challenging the decision are closing one by one in a matter of minutes. I am aware that Google can’t devote a person to service all requests for support from anyone, particularly for a free service. But the amount of information and money Google makes by offering that service to a single person is not to be underestimated. The amount of advertising we see in our life is unbelievable. We’ve stopped counting long ago. The amount of information we give them about ourselves, the relationships they can create from our info and our lives is staggering. But that is not the content shown on the sign up page. The sign up page is a non-aggressive, all-inviting, friendly, Hakuna Matata kind of thing. But beware, don’t startle the sleeping giant or you will get the shoulder. The cold hard shoulder. The cold hard ‘terms and conditions’ and ‘policies’ and 20.000-word service agreement nobody reads – well, they read it and hide themselves behind it!

Since this event, I’ve moved on. Although I’ve repeatedly contacted Google through all avenues I could think of, there is no more reply about the accounts in question. Google has moved on too. I still have a lot of information stored with them. But I’m moving a lot of it to a safe place I can control. I am making backup copies of my backup copies. The data I have is way too valuable to just leave it to Google’s (or someone else’s whims). As it turns out, when their systems decide to get personal, there’s no way back and no human person is there to look at it and make an exception.

What should you do? Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Don’t take all the big corporations at their word. No, they do NOT have your best interest in mind, and they do NOT care if you lose data, business, relationships, files, memories or time. All they care about is their bottom line, the volume, the numbers, the money they can make from you. And if it turns out that some bad thing that happens is their fault, they will wash their hands of it with the interminable terms and conditions and policies.

Sounds like an article full of resentment. It’s not. I’m still going to use Google’s, Microsoft’s, Facebook’s, Apple’s, and others’ services, but perhaps be extra cautious. Keep things separate. Try not to act suspicious. Use different information where you can. I sound like a Hacker 101 course, but I can’t help it. Suddenly, the great big friendly benevolent conglomerate has turned against little old me and I DO take it personally. That’s how hackers are born.

Today it’s a small thing like a ‘free’ e-mail account. Tomorrow? What are they going to close? What are they going to cut you off from? What information have you ‘saved’ that they take hostage or use against you? No one knows, but it’s going to happen. Sooner or later. Don’t give your life to them.