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When Google locks you out of your account, begging the internet for help is your first (and last) resort

Google has a long-standing reputation for inadequate developer support — especially if you’re a smaller, independent studio or team. But the company’s general customer support is also lacking, and today’s horror story is the kind that’s likely to encourage a Google Takeout backup, just in case. Midnight last night, one customer’s Google account was fully disabled. They claim that with no warning and no explanation, the full contents of their Google account — email, photos, Google Pay balance, even the ability to pay their internet bill via Google Fiber and cellphone bill via Google Fi — were unceremoniously snatched away.

What happened?

Take this all with a grain of salt, since we can never be sure we’re getting the full story, but the details we do have are terrifying.

Last night, the email above was sent to a Google customer named Chris, explaining that his Google account has been disabled because “it looks like it was used in a way that seriously violated Google’s policies.” The email arrived while they were asleep, and no additional information regarding the reason for the account’s suspension was provided. Thinking it must have happened in error, Chris submitted an appeal, but it was denied, leaving him without any apparent options and no access to the decade-old Google account.

For some of us, that might just be a mild inconvenience, but Google’s services are both many and pervasive. If you’re locked out of your Google account and the only company service you use is Gmail, you might lose access to your emails, but Chris was much more deeply invested, using Google Fi for phone service, Google Fiber for internet access, Google Pay to settle debts, Google Drive for school and work, and Google Photos for photo backups. This left him with no way to pay phone or internet bills, unable to access his Google Pay balance, and with nearly a decade of photos and documents gone. And even that basic loss of email access is a massive problem right now — Chris, like many of us during the pandemic, is unemployed, and can’t answer any responses to job applications while locked out of the account.

On top of that, email is often used for two-factor authentication, including some financial services and healthcare. This loss of email account access can also mean third-party services entirely unrelated to Google may be affected, and Chris may temporarily lose access to both doctor and bank thanks to Google’s actions.

Forget identity theft or hacking, you have a new digital horror

Most of us probably think the biggest internet service nightmare we could suffer is identity theft or hacking (and we’ve heard some real digital horror stories there, too), but this simple, one-sided action by Google can be massively destructive to our lives, equating to terms-of-service-sanctioned destruction of all our digital property if we aren’t wise enough to make regular backups. And, sadly, it’s also becoming commonplace.

Just last month, Terraria developer Andrew Spinks was also locked out of his Google account for what was thought to be a bunk YouTube terms of service violation. The action led to the temporary cancelation of his massively popular game for Google’s game-streaming platform Stadia. While Spinks had enough influence to raise attention to the matter and seek both clarity regarding the problem and resolution from Google, others aren’t so lucky.

A couple years back in 2019, Google handed out account suspensions in bulk to hundreds of users for interacting in a choose-your-own-adventure livestream YouTube Original series. While viewers were warned that Google’s spambot detection was likely to be an issue if they were too enthusiastic in their participation, some did not take the warning close enough to heart, and the YouTuber behind the broadcast even had to step in to help his viewers seek a solution.

All this further ignores the many smaller account suspensions that happen silently all the time, leaving customers screaming into Google’s automated, uncaring void. In many cases, customers may not even know why their accounts were suspended — Google never tells them.

The same is true for Chris, who tells us the reason behind the suspension remains a mystery. In some cases, Google suspends an account to help the account holder themselves — if, for instance, it’s been hacked, that can protect their data. But the closest Chris has to an explanation is a late-night backup configured via Google’s Backup and Sync tool, set for that time of day to save bandwidth, and which made a record of video editing projects, potentially containing copyrighted music, though unshared.

It remains to be seen if Chris will ever hear more on the subject. He claims that he is unable to get ahold of a “real person” to explain what happened, and customer service reps they have spoken to simply point to Google’s support site. We’ve reached out to Google for more information regarding both this particular instance and the company’s account suspension practices in general, but a response wasn’t immediately forthcoming. Right now, Chris claims to have “resigned myself that the account is likely gone forever.”

Thankfully, Chris has raised a big enough stink over on Reddit and Twitter to gather attention, so Google may yet address their individual case with greater transparency, but not everyone is so lucky. In the meantime, I know I’ll be backing up my own Google account data tonight, and I recommend you do the same.

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