Protect Your Data from Google's Hammer
It seems like lots of people have been tossed out of Googleville on their keisters lately. Many found themselves the victim of Google+'s silly name policies, which frown on pseudonyms or nicknames. Some got bounced for other reasons.
But no expulsion from Google was quite so dramatic or potentially disastrous as the one experienced by New York City artist Dylan Marcheschi, whose plight -- which he publicized under the Twitter pseudonym "@ThomasMonopoly" -- went viral last week.
Marcheschi had the last seven years of his digital life stored on various Google services, and he lost access to all of it two weeks ago when Google mysteriously killed his account and refused to tell him why.
Two days ago, as public pressure on Google to explain itself mounted, Marcheschi found out why. A Google bot that automatically scans Picasa for illegal images flagged something Marcheschi had posted as child pornography. And that was all she wrote -- goodbye Gmail, Blogger, Calendar, Docs, photos, and all the rest.
It turns out that the image he posted, though admittedly disturbing, was not technically porn. In fact, he says his reason for posting the image - to a collection he curated called "The Evolution of Sex" -- was to make a point about how you can post images of minors being sexualized without breaking any laws. (Marcheschi says Google deleted the image, he has no other copy, and doesn't remember where he found it on the InterWebs, so there's no way to judge for yourself.)
Luckily for Marcheschi, a Google human stepped in, determined that Dylan was not a kiddie porn merchant, and turned his account back on.
But what if something similar happened to you, and you weren't so lucky?
What if you owned an Android phone, which uses your Google ID to access all kinds of data services, and Google killed your account? Would you have a brick in your pocket?
I asked Google what would happen. The news is both good and bad.
"Your Android phone would still function, for example to make phone calls, surf the Web, send and receive texts, etc.," sayeth a Google spokeshuman. "Obviously Gmail, Contacts and other services tied to your Google Account wouldn't work."
In that case, your only option would be to create a new Google account and, yes, start from scratch. That would likely involve a factory reset of your phone, so kiss your contacts, text messages, and other stored data goodbye.
Fortunately, with the exception of Google Voice, your cell number is not associated with your Google account, says the G-rep. So your phone itself isn't banned, even if your old account name is.
What should you do? Back up all your Google data now, before the inconceivable happens. Google has set up a site called the Data Liberation Front and a service called Google Takeout designed to help you move most of your stuff off G-services. The problem? It falls down badly when it comes to Gmail -- probably the most important Google service for most of us.
Want to access your Gmail messages when you're not on Gmail? The most straightforward way is to use a third-party e-mail client like Outlook or Thunderbird and download your e-mail into it. (Be sure to leave a copy on the Gmail servers if you want to access it from other machines.)
You can also set up Gmail to work offline using the now moribund Google Gears -- but only if you're using an older version of Firefox or Internet Explorer. Paradoxically, this doesn't work with any version of Google's own Chrome browser.
That works for mail you receive from now on. How about those years' worth of Gmail archives squirreled away in some Google data center? For that you'll probably need another program, like the free Gmail Backup for Windows, or payware like Backupify (starting at $3 a month) or BackupMyMail ($20+ a year). I'm using Gmail Backup as I write this; it's not fast, and you can't just set it to run periodically and forget it, but it does seem to do the job.
[UPDATE: After this item posted I heard back from my Google contact, who says setting up an e-mail client to access Gmail via POP or IMAP will download all your mail, not just your new messages -- something that's not at all clear from the Data Liberation Web site. My apologies for the error.]
Getting your data back from Google is far too complicated than it should be. And from all accounts, dealing with Google after your account has been terminated is Kafkaesque at best. Let's hope it never happens to you or me.
Remember, just because a service is technically free doesn't mean it won't cost you bigtime down the road.