Google Docs Users Locked Out

John Lister's picture

Google has been locking users out of their online documents in what appears to be a glitch. The problem has raised questions over how and why Google scans the contents of documents.

The problem is with Google Docs, a service that lets users store, edit and share documents online, rather than them having to be stored on a specific computer (and shared by physical media such as USB sticks if necessary).

Multiple users are reporting that they've been unable to access files, instead seeing a message saying "This item has been flagged as inappropriate and can no longer be shared" or "We're sorry. You can't access this item because it is in violation of our Terms of Service."

There doesn't appear to be any consistent pattern in the content of the documents, nor any obvious reason why their subject or content would breach any terms.

Google Says It Scans 'docs'

At the time of writing, the only response from Google was a statement reading "We're investigating reports of an issue with Google Docs. We will provide more information when appropriate." (Source:

Google does make clear than it not only tracks the activity of people using Google service, but also scans content, with the resulting information being used to make personalized search results more relevant. However, it seems not everyone was aware that Google's privacy policy says this could extend to documents as well. (Source:

Copyright Could Be The Key

What isn't clear – and what Google has not clarified when pressed on the issue today – is the extent to which this applies to documents. For example, it could only cover document titles, or it could cover the content of documents themselves. It's also possible it varies depending on whether a document is set to be totally private, shared with specific individuals only, or made available to anyone with the relevant link.

One theory –albeit unproven -- is that the glitch might not relate to offensive content, but rather than Google is searching for possible copyright violation. It may be that Google is concerned about being held responsible for hosting documents that breach copyright, such as pirated e-books. The problem is that it's sometimes hard for a computerized system to distinguish between actual violations and fair use that reprints sections of copyrighted material with the appropriate citation for legitimate purposes such as criticism.

What's Your Opinion?

Have you or anyone you know come across the problem? Do you think this is more likely to be a freak glitch or a sign of Google taking more interest in the content of documents? Do you think users have enough understanding of both what rights online companies retain to examine content and how they actually exercise these rights?

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LouisianaJoe's picture

Libre Office is free and you keep your documents to yourself.

I do not use Google docs or the google search engine. Google is way too invasive.

doulosg's picture

... and maybe not so accidentally, THIS very newsletter was flagged by Google Mail as a potential phishing expedition! A bright red warning at the top of the page that "messages like these has content that is often used to steal personal information" (or words to that effect). You bad boy, Dennis! LOL

Dennis Faas's picture

I am not sure when this came into effect (I.E. when Google started flagging email as "not encrypted"). I do not use the gmail interface, but I will certainly look into creating email certificates so that emails will be encrypted. Thanks for the heads up!

pctyson's picture

I also, humorously, got the message from this very email. I had to flag it as OK before I could click any of the links in the newsletter