Earlier in February, I published my thoughts
on Google throwing away a Terraria
release on Stadia by offering creator Andrew Spinks absolutely no assistance after he was mysteriously locked out of all Google services. I heard from Rhodri Marsden, a writer frequently published at The National
, about a “thing” he was writing (his definition, which I’m going to start using for my work as well) on digital “lockouts” and their increasing importance. I agreed to provide additional comments for his article, and we chatted a bit over email.
I was flattered by how prominently he used my quotes throughout the story, and I appreciate how he rolled with what I’m sure was at least one unexpected answer. I fully agree the issue needs ongoing examination. New laws may very well be appropriate. But I prefer to focus on how to protect myself, pass along how you can protect yourself, and keep moving forward.
Check out the story at The National
–and sometime look up Rhodri Marsden’s fascinating music career
which includes being thrown off of Blur’s tour of the UK. As a newsletter extra, I’m including my full answers to his interview questions here.
Marsden: With your own experience with AdSense, what did you find the most troubling aspect of your lockout? The injustice of it? The lack of recourse to appeal? Was there something deeply troubling about a notional “customer service” where it’s impossible to speak to (or reason with) an actual human?
In fact, it’s becoming clear to me that people with a profile who are able to make a noise about their case have a better chance of having it resolved to their satisfaction, which (to me) makes a mockery of the notion of customer service at all…
Mitchell: “Injustice” might be the right word. I was younger and much more naive when Google blindsided my team. I got used to thinking of the AdSense program as a fair partnership between me and Google. Just as we were ready to collect our first check, they decided there was a problem, said they returned all of our earnings to their ad partners, and locked me out of the AdSense dashboard. They wouldn’t explain what the exact problem was—I’ve sent multiple appeals—but I’m sure we sent them many legitimate customers. We did the work. Google’s advertisers got everything for free. My team got nothing. I got banned for life.
The sense of unfairness was unforgettable. This was not a partnership—I had been working in Google’s house. When it was time to get paid, they threw me out and told me not to come back. I had no leverage. There was nowhere to go with it. Was I supposed to play goalie with all of the clicks on my website? If they are so skilled at identifying invalid clicks and conversions, why not just ignore them? Don’t pay me and don’t charge the advertiser for them. I still earned the rest of the check. Why is someone else entitled to that? I notice by the time blogging declined and webmasters got wise to the risks, Google seemed to start doing the exact same thing to a new class of unsuspecting content creators on YouTube.
Google’s inconsistency has always bothered me. As you mentioned, high-profile accounts seem to be reinstated routinely when they make enough noise. Would you do that for someone you believe defrauded you because you found out they were popular? Unlike Andrew Spinks, I’m only locked out of one section of my Google account. I can use Gmail, YouTube, Google Drive, Google Voice, and countless other services. I can place orders in their store and make payments to other sites with their transaction service. Do they believe I’m a bad guy or not? Their actions seem to communicate to me that they don’t really believe their own messaging when they ban accounts. I suspect they either don’t want to spend the time to resolve their own bans or that they’re comfortable enforcing the bans even when they can’t prove the account holder is to blame. I certainly wasn’t.
Marsden: When I read about these cases, using cloud-based services suddenly feels very precarious. (I spent the afternoon grabbing all my stuff and backing it up!) I wondered if you had any view on how this state of affairs can be resolved. GMail, Dropbox, Apple ID have become “essential services” – indeed, they sell themselves as such – but agreeing to the ToS means you can be booted off for whatever reason… Do there need to be better laws to recognise the unique role of these services and their importance to people’s lives, businesses, wellbeing?
Mitchell: Realistically, I think new laws are always going to trail behind a lot of damage. It’s a lot more important that we learn to limit the risks we take. We tend to think of being online as this phenomenon that started about 25 years ago, so now we think we’ve seen it all. The truth is that the online experience is changing all the time. Many of us know not to hand our kids an iPad and stop paying attention. Some of us have figured out not to believe every shared post on Facebook. Now we have to decide whether to trust cryptocurrency or accept investment advice from message boards. There’s always something new happening.
I think we’re still coming to terms with the fact that these essential and convenient service providers can’t be expected to look after our best interests. Governing bodies will continue to step in when a problem gets too big to ignore, but we’re responsible for developing a situational awareness online (just like in the real world) to make sure we’re not tripped up by something new. It’s an exercise in risk assessment, and there’s a real danger of getting it wrong once in a while.