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Follow-Up On "Sticking With Dropbox"

On Tuesday this week, Google announced Drive, a personal cloud storage system. I was intrigued by the offering, but a quick perusal through the Terms of Service left me uneasy. So, I wrote a quick post comparing similar terms from Dropbox and Microsoft’s SkyDrive. Based on feedback from some readers, I felt the post required a follow-up for clarification.

It wasn’t my intention to selectively parse Terms of Service in order to frame some personal worldview of technology companies. I write in a terse manner and leave a lot of reading to the user. If people often think that I could say more, then they are probably right. My style, however, is to introduce people to interesting topics, briefly mention my thoughts, and then let them form their own opinions. I don’t wish to misguide or preach to my readers. In short, I simply hope to start conversations.

Many people have relayed that each company’s Terms of Service “all say the same thing.” This is largely true. Let’s look at a few phrases.

Dropbox

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.

Microsoft SkyDrive

You understand that Microsoft may need, and you hereby grant Microsoft the right, to use, modify, adapt, reproduce, distribute, and display content posted on the service solely to the extent necessary to provide the service.

Google

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.

These all say the same thing. Each company requires permission from you in order to operate their respective service. For instance, without these terms, they would be unable to move your files in their system, work to efficiently store your data, display thumbnails, or share content with your friends. They are reasonable requests so that you can use the service as expected.

It wasn’t my contention that the terms differed in this way, although it is my fault that people were confused. I was partially wrong when I said:

I am not too thrilled with the idea of giving Google (and their unnamed associates) a worldwide license to create and own derivative works of my content. Especially when that content could contain sensitive information. It is an easy choice to stick with Dropbox.

I was wrong in my use of the phrase “derivative works” because it was presented in a context that implied Google alone was copying user data to do with whatever they like. The truth is that Google simply used more legally-descriptive terms than other companies. By “derivative works”, Google merely means that they require the ability to modify your work for particular purposes, such as generating thumbnails or similar. That is a practice all of the above companies employ.

However, there is one distinct difference in Google’s Terms of Service:

The rights you grant in this license are for the limited purpose of operating, promoting, and improving our Services, and to develop new ones.

What does Google mean by promoting? Can they use your content in an ad for their services? Would they? Probably not, but their language is vague enough to allow it. Similarly, I have a problem with Google not clarifying what they mean by “and those we work with.” Given that Google is an advertising company whose main customers are advertisers, it would be prudent to further explain what they mean.

The problem that Google faces is that they have one Terms of Service and Privacy Policy that span all of their products. That is an issue when the purpose of those products conflict. Take for instance YouTube. Users upload videos with the sole purpose of publicizing their content. On the other hand, Drive can serve as a place where people store content intended to remain private. When the same set of permissions are granted to Google for both services, people become uneasy.

Perhaps the largest unanswered question revolves around whether Google will index the contents of your personal Drive in order to facilitate targeted ads or similar. Many have pointed to the following clause in the Privacy Policy to alleviate such fears:

We will ask for your consent before using information for a purpose other than those that are set out in this Privacy Policy.

Sounds great, right? They will ask for your permission. The problem is that delivering targeted ads is directly stated as a purpose in the Privacy Policy. That means no permission is needed to index your private Drive contents in order to improve personalized advertisements:

We use the information we collect from all of our services to provide, maintain, protect and improve them, to develop new ones, and to protect Google and our users. We also use this information to offer you tailored content – like giving you more relevant search results and ads.

To reiterate, I do not think Google has malicious intent with its Drive service. It is just another service to lure customers to their platform. That said, Google has one Terms of Service and Privacy Policy that applies site wide. Such practice fosters a vagueness that leaves some users uncomfortable. Google Drive has served as a stress test for the Terms of Service - a test that has elucidated several concerns.

My post was meant to highlight those concerns, not to selectively paint Google in a negative light. My phrase “It is an easy choice to stick with Dropbox” was short and perhaps deserved more explanation. It is an easy choice because Dropbox is a one-trick pony, it has years of reliable service, and they have never given me pause to trust their company. The same cannot be said for Google. Given the vagueness of Google’s Terms of Service, I simply choose not to upload personal content to Drive. That choice was easy and it was based on principle.

If you have any comments or found the article helpful, you may wish to follow me on Twitter or shoot me an email.

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© 2011-2018 Jeremy A. Gibbs