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Google Docs Is Randomly Flagging Files for Violating Its Terms of Service

Let this serve as a reminder that you have less control over your stuff online than it often appears.

Louise Matsakis

Louise Matsakis

Image: Shutterstock / Composition: Louise Matsakis

Update: 3:21 PM EST: A Google spokesperson reached out via email with the following statement saying that the bug has been fixed: "This morning, we made a code push that incorrectly flagged a small percentage of Google Docs as abusive, which caused those documents to be automatically blocked. A fix is in place and all users should have full access to their docs. Protecting users from viruses, malware, and other abusive content is central to user safety. We apologize for the disruption and will put processes in place to prevent this from happening again."

The original story follows below:

Google Docs, the collaborative, cloud-based word processing software, appears to be randomly flagging files for supposedly "violating" Google's Terms of Service. A member of Motherboard's team, as well as numerous users on Twitter, report that their documents are being locked for no apparent reason. Once a document is flagged, the owner of that document can no longer share it with other users. Users who have already been shared on a document that's been flagged are kicked out and can no longer access it.

When a draft Motherboard article was locked on Monday morning, a message took over the screen that read "This item has been flagged as inappropriate and can no longer be shared." It's not clear why this is happening, but it may be the result of a glitch in the system Google uses to monitor Google Docs. DownDetector is currently reporting Google Drive problems in the US and Europe, which may be part of the problem.

When I reached out to Google about the problem, it said it was looking into it. "We're investigating reports of an issue with Google Docs. We will provide more information when appropriate," a spokesperson told me in an email.

One Google employee on Twitter, Corrie Davidson, who is a Senior Program Manager at Google according to her LinkedIn profile, also said the Docs team is looking into the issue. The official Google Docs Twitter account also tweeted that the potential bug was being examined.

Google indexes your documents, which is what makes them searchable on Drive. There's nothing specific in the company's Privacy Policy about whether or not it is scanning Google Docs for information beyond this. I asked Google for information about what it collects about individual files and will update this post if I receive more information.

Google's Privacy Policy States that its "automated systems analyze your content (including emails) to provide you personally relevant product features, such as customized search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection."

It's worth noting that until earlier this year, Google read users' emails in order to target advertisements (the tech was not used on G Suite business accounts). In June, the company announced it would continue to read your messages, but would stop using the data it collected to customize ads.

No matter what's causing the Google Docs bug, the issue is a pertinent reminder that you don't really have control over the content you put on the internet. The documents you create and save on Google Drive are ultimately controlled by Google—even if they can feel like they belong to us.

Update 11:55 AM EST: This post has been updated with comment from Google.

Got a tip? You can contact this reporter securely on Signal at +1 201-316-6981, or by email at louise.matsakis@vice.com

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