Earlier today reports from panicked Google Docs users poured out on Twitter: people were getting locked out of documents they were writing.

It started with National Geographic's wildlife-crime writer Rachael Bale who asked on Twitter if anyone else had experienced a Google Docs lockout before.

The reason? Cryptic error messages only stated that the documents somehow violated Google Drive Terms of Services.

But how could Google know that a document supposedly violated TOS?

File scanning

This mishap underlines the fact that Google is continuously scanning your documents' contents, in search of TOS violations.

Google did explain this sudden lockout to Gizmodo:

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.

Just about everything you search, watch or type in Google products is monitored.

Google Drive Terms of Service are pretty clear about this:

"Our automated systems analyze your content to provide you personally relevant product features, such as customized search results, and spam and malware detection"

If you read Google Privacy policy, the whole picture gets clearer.

We collect information about the services that you use and how you use them, like when you watch a video on YouTube, visit a website that uses our advertising services, or view and interact with our ads and content,

But what exactly does collect information mean? That page is a bit more detailed:

This includes information like your usage data and preferences, Gmail messages, G+ profile, photos, videos, browsing history, map searches, docs, or other Google-hosted content. Our automated systems analyze this information as it is sent and received and when it is stored

Even though docs are referred to with a lowercase, as in a type of content that can be stored on your Google Account, it does appear that Google is analyzing the documents you write.

Do you want Google to analyze everything you write?

EU privacy laws

General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR is a new European law expected to take effect in 2018. Would it change how Google operates?

Google would be considered both a processor and data controller.
Such newly defined entities can scan user data, but :

  • it must be an automated form of processing;
  • it must be carried out on personal data; and
  • the objective of the profiling must be to evaluate personal aspects about a natural person.

Google does seem to conform to these criteria.

However, this does not change the fact that Google scanning is a kind of black box whose rules are only known to Google.

Google has created such a pattern-matching system to protect its users from malicious documents. But what if it misfires and starts blocking legitimate documents just as it did today? And what if Google uses this automated process to prevent people from writing things Google does not consider 'appropriate'? Would this be censorship?