Blogger Tienlon Ho offers a modern cautionary tale about being locked out of his Google account for unknown reasons (Disclosure: my husband works at Google):
“A few minutes into my Google-less existence, I realized how dependent I had become. I couldn’t finish my work or my taxes, because my notes and expenses were stored in Google Drive, and I didn’t know what else I should work on because my Google calendar had disappeared. I couldn’t publicly gripe about what I was going through, because my Blogger no longer existed. My Picasa albums were gone. I’d lost my contacts and calling plan through Google Voice; otherwise I would have called friends to cry.”
In the age of cloud computing, your life and business can be gone in a moment. Work, cherished memories, your very identity are all stored on anonymous servers, and the private companies to which you have voluntarily outsourced your world are under no obligation to make you whole again in the case of interruption of service–particularly when you are using services they offer for free.
Google’s Terms of Service limits its liability for such glitches to the amount you pay them for the services, which is usually nothing at all. “When permitted by law, Google, and Google’s suppliers and distributors, will not be responsible for lost profits, revenues, or data, financial losses or indirect, special, consequential, exemplary, or punitive damages.” Amazon Web Services, which powers sites like Netflix, Pinterest, and Instagram, uses similar language.
Right now, the customer has no recourse. To make matters worse, these companies don’t offer an extraordinary amount of customer service when something goes wrong. But international law and policy are starting to evolve to recognize just how dependent we’ve become on Internet access and free data storage. This paper by the Council of Europe discusses the emerging idea of data protection as a universal human right. Although case law usually focuses more on protection from intrusion by government and private actors, this right as discussed in the paper includes “the right to control one’s own data.”
Similarly, a new book by telecom policy expert Susan Crawford argues that Internet access is as vital as any other utility, and should be regulated to prevent the consolidation of monopolies (such as the 2011 Comcast-NBC merger) and resulting threats to service.
President Obama introduced a “Privacy Bill of Rights” about a year ago, but has yet to take up what the Germans call “Recht auf informationelle Selbstbestimmung” (“the right to informational self-determination”).