Who exactly does own the documents you store online?

Storing documents, etc. in the “cloud”... My first and immediate advice... don't

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

With online office applications improving in quality all the time, they are quickly becoming the tools of choice for web workers.

Between the ability to access your documents from anywhere via a web-enabled PC or laptop, the easy sharing, and the automatic backups, and all that more and more people who are using these services.

But in this rush to go online, we all sometimes fail to understand exactly what we are getting for free there in the cloud. If you use these services for more business purposes, it is worth a look at their Terms of Service.

Let us therefore look at the terms for three of the major alternatives in the online document space – Google Docs, Zoho, and Adobe’s new Acrobat.com service. What I found might give you some pause for thought – especially if you tend towards the cautious and/or paranoid end of the business user spectrum.

In order to find the terms for Google Docs, you need to first go to the “Help Center”, and then follow three separate links to the privacy policy, terms of service, and additional terms. Here are a few excerpts – and may be here is the right place to insert the disclaimer that says, “I am not a lawyer”. Therefore, for full details, you do best to read the originals themselves and – ideally – discuss them with your own attorney ot paralegal.

As far as Google is concerned while you retain copyright, “you give Google a worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through the Service for the sole purpose of enabling Google to provide you with the Service in accordance with its Privacy Policy.”

Oh lovely... so they can use anything you and I store online in any way that they like. I think so NOT!

Also, Google can discontinue the service at any time with no notice, and you may lose your files with no notice.

Furthermore, Google retains the right to filter or remove content, can put ads wherever they want, with no notice to you.

Also, you may like to note that deleted documents may remain on Google’s servers for up to three weeks.

Zoho’s Terms of Service and privacy policy are linked directly from their home page. If you read them, you’ll find:

“Unless specifically permitted by you, your use of the Services does not grant AdventNet the license to use, reproduce, adapt, modify, publish or distribute the content created by you or stored in your Account for AdventNet’s commercial, marketing or any similar purpose.”

While this sounds already better than the previous ones, below a couple of more, namely that Zoho can block or remove content that infringes copyright or violates laws.

Zoho can also terminate your account at any time for any reason and here files may remain on their servers after deletion for an unspecified length of time.

So, are you still considering to store your documents in the cloud?

Acrobat.com, like Zoho, has its services agreement and privacy policy linked from their home page. On the minor annoyances side, the terms are only available as a PDF, not online as with other services. So, you have to download them first in order to read them, or have Adobe Reader open them in the browser.

Here are some ideas as to what the TOS and other policies contain:

Adobe can discontinue providing the service at any time, with no notice.

According to the information you retain ownership of your files, but “By maintaining your Content on the Services, you grant to Adobe a non-exclusive, worldwide, perpetual, royalty-free and fully paid license under all intellectual property rights to copy, distribute, transmit, publicly display, publicly perform, transmit, and reformat your Content solely to deliver the Services to you.”

Sorry, do I understand rightly that the majority of them, that is to say here in this case two out of three, seem to take upon themselves the right that they own, theoretically, access to my documents that I may store on their services and the right to, while I “retain the copyright” they can use the material in any way that they choose. Duh?

And, Adobe may read your content for legal or technical reasons.

So what’s it all mean? Reading over all three agreements, it’s very clear that Google and Adobe have more lawyers hanging around than does AdventNet (Zoho’s corporate name). - and, like lawyers everywhere, they’ve gotten their fingers into the pie. Of the three services, Google has perhaps the most intrusive agreement, thanks to their explicitly reserving the right to serve ads anywhere. As far as ownership goes, you should be OK with any of these services; although Google and Adobe claim licenses, the full terms make it clear that these license are limited to actually providing you the service you’re using.

One thing that’s clearly missing is any sort of backup guarantee. While you may feel more secure storing your documents on Google’s or Zoho’s or Adobe’s servers than your own, that security is not something that you’re promised. Any of the three can lose your documents or terminate your ability to get to them at any time for pretty much any reason, and you’re out of luck. So if you do put important things online - back them up somewhere else.

Therefore, don't rely on this kind of storage. Do your own backup and store your data offline on internal and external hard drives, CDs, etc.

As I have previously said in my article "Cloud Computing – Methinks not!" you may, if the services fail, find yourself up the creek without a paddle and I certainly would not rely, ever on this.

Also, none of these services guarantee you privacy nor the integrity of your documents. While some, a great number in fact, of Web 2.0 services and such are great for all of us to use and I love the iScrybe service and Google Calendar and I also have a Google Mail account, I will not rely on Web 2.0 for storage of my data of any kind.

While this may upset some people and also some of the providers what I am saying here the fact remains that such services are – probably – great when it comes to document sharing and online collaboration but more or less permanent storage in the cloud I would most certainly advise against.

I know that I am still old fashioned and give me the option I probably would still make tape backups even. When it comes to documents and such like, they are all best kept close to you, especially if you value the information and do not, necessarily, want the entire world to know; at least not before you choose to bring out the information into the public domain.

So, in summing up, yet again my advice: by all means use online services, “in the cloud” services, for documents that you want to be able to access remotely or that you want to share with other for purposes of collaborations and such, but do not keep your data there as a means of more or less permanent storage facility. Those service are not ideal for that.

© M Smith (Veshengro), July 2008