Google Drive: the new document syncing service

As anyone who has been paying attention will know, Google released Google Drive today, which is their new competitor to other services. I already use Dropbox with a fervent evangelism, and I also have an account on Box, so I figured I’d take a brief look at what Google Drive is.

The first thing that it’s important to note is that Google Drive replaces Google Docs. That is to say, if you had any documents in Docs, they’re now in your Drive, and going to the old Google Docs URL will redirect you to the new Drive URL. I use Google Docs to edit fanzine articles with España Sheriff1 — when either of us has written an article, we upload it so that the other can go through and make suggestions. The everyone-can-edit model suits this workflow extremely well, and so I now have a number of fanzine articles saved in Google Drive (as well as a bunch of work from my undergraduate degree).

All told, there are several pieces of work in there, and I am not keen to cede the rights to those to Google. This means that the Google Terms of Service make me slightly nervous:

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. This license continues even if you stop using our Services (for example, for a business listing you have added to Google Maps). Some Services may offer you ways to access and remove content that has been provided to that Service. Also, in some of our Services, there are terms or settings that narrow the scope of our use of the content submitted in those Services. Make sure you have the necessary rights to grant us this license for any content that you submit to our Services.

Is this anything to worry about? It’s certainly been noticed online, but is it anything to worry about? Well, firstly, it’s important to note that Google do not take ownership of your files — they just give themselves a licence to do things with your files. This is an important distinction, as it means that the copyright still resides with you. The other important thing to note is that this licence is granted even after you stop using the product, but this appears to be in order to allow Google to continue displaying information in other services, rather than specifically relevant to Google Drive.

This brings me to the main point: This Terms of Service document is not specific to Google Drive, but is applicable to every Google service. Unless the segment of Google you’re using has more restrictive terms that supersede the ones outlined in this blog post, they already apply to you. This means, for instance, that these terms already applied to the documents I had in Google Docs. Or, indeed, to any email I have received since 2004, thanks to my Gmail account.

A similar outcry happened around a year ago, when it became clear that many picture sharing services owned any images that were uploaded to their servers, and Dropbox itself was implicated in a similar brouhaha when they updated their TOS in 2011. One of the things that arose from that (as well as a huge reaction from their users) was a blog post outlining why Dropbox needed the things outlined in their TOS. A lot of the permissions granted are there just so that you can have the experience you expect, and the same is almost certainly true of Google.

Google need to update their Terms of Service, just like Dropbox did, to make it clear that the information uploaded to their servers is not going to be used for anything outside of users’ expectations. I’m hopeful that the blog posts and news articles being written on this subject will expedite that process, and that the TOS will be made clearer very soon.2 I don’t intend to completely ignore Google Drive, but I would feel much more comfortable using the service if this issue was explicitly addressed by the company.

  1. Coincidentally, her latest blog post is about deleting files from Google Docs and moving them to Dropbox. 
  2. Separate TOS documents for Google Drive and Gmail would seem like a sensible idea! 

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