The Cloud Ate The Unicorn

A confession: Reading op-eds by Roxane Gay is one of my guilty pleasures. It’s my version of watching one Kardashian telling another how she really feels. It’s like an emotional roller coaster built atop an intellectual cesspool. It never fails to disappoint, even if it remains inexplicable why she’s given space to opine, demographics aside.

But her gripe this time isn’t about her deepest feelings of despair that the world hasn’t recreated itself around her. This time, she’s going after a target truly deserving of castigation: the Cloud.

The spectacles of life, sex and death are the mainstay of Dennis Cooper’s blog, DC’s Blog. I never know what to expect when I read it, but I always know I will be provoked, challenged and intrigued. Over the years, Mr. Cooper, an artist and writer, has curated any number of collections of ideas and images, revealing an inexhaustible curiosity about art and the human condition. He has unfailingly championed small-press writers, and particularly those who experiment with language, narrative and form.

As required by the rules of social justice, Gay opens with her heart, because nothing that follows would matter if she didn’t gush with adoration.  This is notable because, had what comes next happened to, say, Mike Cernovich’s blog, which likely doesn’t evoke the same love as Cooper’s, you can bet your bottom dollar that Gay would have done a 180 and applauded the Cloud having eradicated hate speech to protect society from evil.

But Gay likes Cooper’s blog, which is fine, so what Google did to it is a bad thing.

Or, I should be speaking in the past tense. On June 27, Mr. Cooper’s Google account was deactivated, he has said. He lost 14 years of his blog archives, creative work, email and contacts. He has hired a lawyer and made complaints, and many of his readers and fans have tried to support his efforts. There is a petition circulating, urging Google to restore his work. Pen America, an organization that promotes free expression, has weighed in, saying that Mr. Cooper deserves a substantive response from Google.

Google, it seems, disappeared Cooper’s blog.

Google has not responded beyond saying there was a violation of the Terms of Service agreement. It has neither identified the specific violation nor indicated why it also deleted Mr. Cooper’s email account. It has not provided Mr. Cooper with the ability to download his personal information so he might rebuild his blog and email account elsewhere.

It might have had something to do with Cooper’s use of ads for gay escorts, but that’s mere speculation.

When I contacted Google for further comment, I got a response that said, “We are aware of this matter, but the specific Terms of Service violations are ones we cannot discuss further due to legal considerations.” I asked about why Mr. Cooper’s Gmail account was also deleted and whether or not he would be able to retrieve the archive of his work, and I was directed to Google’s Terms of Service, Gmail Policy and Blogger Content Policy, which did not offer any useful specifics.

By contacted, I assume she means sent an email to support. It’s not like you can call up Mr. Google and ask him what the hell he was thinking.

Google’s relative silence is deafening and disturbing. Mr. Cooper is reluctant to call this deletion censorship, but given the nature of his work that is what it feels like. Regardless, Google’s actions here suggest that some boundaries shouldn’t be challenged.

Welcome to the cloud, Roxane.  But not just the cloud, as there are clouds everywhere. Welcome to the free cloud, the one where you get to ride your unicorn on someone else’s rainbow and hand over your world to the whims of whoever’s finger hovers over the delete button on the Google campus.

Is it censorship?  Well, maybe, but then, it’s not as if you have a problem with censorship, Roxane. Nowhere in your polemic do you mention Milo. If censorship is your beef, than why not Milo?  Well, we both know the answer. You’re all for censorship, as long as it’s people you disagree with. In fact, if it’s someone as evil as Milo, then it’s just social justice, because he’s a mean, hateful monster. But Cooper? You like him. That makes Google wrong.

And as with all things social justice-y, the solution is rules.

The scholar Langdon Winner has written extensively about technological progress without consideration of the consequences of adopting technology. Professor Winner coined the term “mythinformation,” the wishful thinking that with open access to technology, the world will become a better place. He has written of “computer enthusiasts,” that they feel there is “no need to try and shape the institutions of the information age in ways that maximize human freedom while placing limits upon concentrations of power.” The deletion of Mr. Cooper’s blog is, perhaps, evidence of what happens when we don’t try to limit concentrations of power.

There’s something missing here. What is it? What could it be? Ohhh, yes. Money. You see, Cooper was a free-rider. There are places that offer free space to anyone who wants it, with the condition that they play by their rules. The rules may be arbitrary. The rules may be nuts. The rules may be wrong. But since you’re free-riding, you don’t get to bitch about the horrible unfairness of enjoying a gift.

I don’t like the way Google plays fast and loose with its terms of service any more than anyone else. Or any of the other big tech businesses, who espouse love and happiness while doing whatever they please and, when you send an email asking why, they respond, “whatcha gonna do about it, punk?”  That’s why I pay someone to host my blog, so I have a contractual relationship that can be enforced in a court of law, with obligations on both sides.

Google owed nothing to Cooper, and Cooper paid nothing to Google. One can attempt to cobble together a detrimental reliance claim, but without consideration (meaning money), Cooper’s got nothing beyond a fan who gets her rants published in the New York Times. While that’s a big hammer for a lot of businesses, not Google. Hell, if Google felt like it, it could disappear the Times from its algorithms as if it never happened. Guess who needs whom more?

Like you, Roxane, I feel for Cooper’s loss. I share your outrage that Google won’t, at least, give him back his content, if not his tiny piece of the cloud. But my feelz are tempered by reason. If Cooper wanted to keep his catalogue of whatever it is he did intact, if it was that important to him, then he shouldn’t have trusted the cloud and, sorry to add, it should have been worth paying a few bucks.*

*In a very interesting comment to Roxane’s op-ed, Richard Luettgen writes:

You can launch a passable blog for $50,000 or less and maintain it with minimal financial resources, even if you’re not technical – and for far less if you are. But to do it properly, in a manner that snaps dependencies such as those imposed by Google and others and protects not only your own work but the very substantial efforts of others who comment on your material is another level of requirement entirely. To design then implement the technology infrastructure that makes you your own master of the content you create and maintain reliably can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. If it needs to sustain formidable user volume with reliable performance it could run into the millions. If you’re serious, you need to be willing to make these kinds of substantial one-time and perpetual investments.

He may be overstating the costs a wee bit. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hit the donate button on the sidebar, though. A cool $50k would be nice. Don’t be a cheapskate.

22 thoughts on “The Cloud Ate The Unicorn

  1. Billy Bob

    What can we say? Other than you knew this was going to happen, sooner or later. We believe in the back-up theory of technological existentialism. Share the wealth; suffer the pain, but not publicly. TV ruined our mind; now comes the internet to ruin our lives. Mother never warned us. Where’s Mad Magazine when we kneed it?

  2. B. McLeod

    Great Joni Mitchell song. The account of events (in the story, not the song) describes a reaction which would be more likely to involve allegations of child porn than ads for gay escorts. Either that, or Google hired an ABA Journal “moderator,” who then disagreed with one or more of Cooper’s opinions. It’s the Internet, and people only have “concentrations of power” to the extent others have trusted them with control over content.

  3. Dan T.

    I certainly don’t trust any cloud-based service to use it in any other manner than as a backup for data I have safely on my own systems.

    1. SHG Post author

      And the NSA, FBI, DEA, ICE, CIA and Homeland Security thank you for using the cloud. Because third party doctrine.

      1. John Barleycorn

        Says you! That newspaper you read everyday has a slightly different take on all things grateful.

        P.S. Speaking of inflated. Have you taken the time to talk to your accountant about the benefits of selling before they round up all the Admirals?

          1. Jim Tyre

            Then perhaps you’ll show us your finances, so we can make a more informed decision of whether to give you $50K. (I would ask whether being like an open blawg is like being an open book, but I fear that some of your readers wouldn’t know what a book is.)

      2. Neil

        Cloud providers such as Microsoft, Google, Apple and Amazon are also aware of the third party doctrine, and may have occasion and motive to fight it. They come across related issues in the encryption in their products, or the production of emails from overseas servers. Is it better to rail against the doctrine on ones own, or to seek to do business so that with shared interests and viewpoints some may have the resources and motivation to tackle the issue? In Twilight of Authority, Robert Nisbet wrote about the decline of all other institutions within society against the expansion of the state. Given the global reach of the internet, and the fact that we call it ‘The Internet’ instead of ‘An Internet’, it seems there’s opportunity to make some reversal of that trend, even if not all of the shiny itoys are as useful as they’re claimed to be.

        1. SHG Post author

          I suspect there might be a kernel of thought in this comment, but it’s just not worth the effort to figure out what you’re trying to say. And no, don’t explain it.

  4. BS Simon

    There seems to be two issues here. 1) The blog with questionable content, and 2) the closing of the Gmail account.

    The first, by all accounts, likely violated the TOS and should probably have been hosted elsewhere anyway.

    The second seems to have been caught up as collateral damage. I use Gmail as my primary email and don’t want to think about the trouble I would have if I lost access to it.

      1. Myles

        The jokes haven’t been that funny, and the serious comments range from incomprehensible to moronic. Maybe it’s time to pull the plug?

        1. SHG Post author

          I’m getting more than a little tired of it all. The signal to noise ratio is really sucking lately.

        2. Billy Bob

          Fait accompli. Thanx Myles. Is that the best you can do?
          When the comedy act is not funny, just wait for the next one. Maybe it will be better?

  5. Dragoness Eclectic

    “The deletion of Mr. Cooper’s blog is, perhaps, evidence of what happens..” when you don’t keep local backups of your articles. (1) Any blog provider can nuke your blog if you violate their ToS, and they generally don’t feel obliged to provide backups if they booted you for ToS violations. (2) Google has a long history of providing experimental free services for a few years, then deciding there’s no future in the experiment and shutting down the free service, without providing an alternative or backups. Anyone who has used free Google stuff over the years should be aware of this by now, and have alternatives lined up for anything they care about. Again, keep local backups.

    Second, Google also has a nasty habit of nuking your entire Google account when they boot your for ToS violations of any part of Google services–so he can say goodbye to his blog, his GMail account, his YouTube account, his Google Finance login, etc, etc, etc. This is arguably their most unfair policy, given their notorious unresponsiveness and inaccessibility in terns of customer support.

    Third: that’s just a wee exaggeration of the cost of setting up a non-free blog (which you noted as well). Hosting services that offer WordPress installs you manage yourself are actually pretty cheap, certainly not “hundreds of thousands of dollars”. Someone is going for ‘the feelz’ in that comment, and hoping no one who actually does business on the Internet notices that they’re full of it. (And I see that other commenters at NYT called him out on it).

    1. SHG Post author

      Your comment might have had some applicability as a comment at the Times to Gay’s op-ed. But not to my post.

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