Gmail Hell(2), an Epilogue: They are the Borg and they are Too Big To Be Allowed To Fail (You and Me!)

Posted on March 12, 2012

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After some 6 days of being unable to access or use my primary email address or account with gmail, as suddenly as it started the floodgates opened and I was once again able to communicate and feel in sync with the larger e-world of which I have been a part for the last almost two decades. (See also my earlier blogpost on this is Gmail Hell, Day 4: Dealing with the Borg (Or “Being Evil” Without Really Thinking About It)

I`m not exactly sure what was done to my account.  I have a feeling that some extraordinary resources were put into getting my issue resolved, in large part because of the blogpost that I wrote and the fairly wide notoriety I have in certain parts of the net.

But I then had to spend the next week or so, almost full time putting my e-life back together–catching up with the backlog of mail, dealing with bounced mail, shifting people back from the temporary account that I set up, catching up with my online class, figuring out how to handle the tangles in the email based processes on which the online journal I edit operates, getting back into the ebb and flow of Internet enabled communicative patterns and what passes for sociability in the virtual realm.

My blogpost and the emails to various e-lists through which I circulated the original discussion about my situation elicited quite a lot of responses–some private some more public.  A lot of the public responses came from techies of one sort of another–and they mostly took the form of “blaming the victim”–“the issues were technical, the fault was mine as someone who didn’t understand the tech”;  “I should have done this, I shouldn’t have done that”, “I was foolish to use gmail (the smart and in the know folks of course don`t use anything so common as gmail)” and so on…

But I also got a lot of private comments and all of those, without exception were prefaced by a personal anecdote of people’s own and similar problems with Google/gmail… people who had, like me been locked out of accounts, or lost their mail archive and couldn’t get in touch with anyone at Google to discuss this, or who had a problem with another Google service–this one that they were paying for but having made some mistake in the path they were given and couldn’t go back or forward and most certainly couldn`t find a way of breaking through the impenetrable carapace that Google surrounds itself with.

I described in my earlier blogpost and in some detail the specific operative background to my particular problem so I won`t repeat that here except to say that none of what I did was anything that other people with various levels of technical knowledge might not have done. I followed gmail`s instructions concerning POPmail to the letter and the result was the result.

That I could/should have used IMAP as several have indicated (including notably “Sarah” the designated hand holder who intervenes, it appears as the angel of mercy on gmail’s help forum when things seem to have reached an appropriate level of desperation) is not the point.  Gmail gave me instructions on how to proceed with POPmail and it led me over the cliff–no warning signs, no “keep out” signs, nothing just a casual admonition from “Sarah” that maybe now that I was over the cliff I probably shouldn’t have taken that path after all.

To be clear, I see what I did as quite similar to looking at a map, say in a public park, where there is no one around to give advice.  I looked at the map and there were two routes outlined to where I wanted to go–one via POPmail and the second via IMAP.  I chose POPmail for no other reason than that was what I was currently using and seemingly not having much of a problem with it.  However, what I didn`t know and it would appear that Google did know or at least could have reasoned out if I had had any means of discussing this with them–was that the one route, as it happens the one that I chose, would lead me over a cliff while the other one presumably would take me to my destination.

But my point (and problem) isn’t/wasn’t technical at all.  Had I been able to communicate with someone with the least bit of knowledge/experience at gmail BEFORE I ventured down the path that I did all of my agonies would have been avoided and not incidentally gmail wouldn’t have had to expend the resources that it appears to have done to help me back up from the bottom of the crevice.

Interestingly when I did manage to break through the gmail exoskeleton I started getting completely uncoordinated responses from several different parts of Google–wait they said, trust us and things will be better and then after a couple of days they were better and then I got one, two and then more, follow-up messages asking me to rate the service that I had received… not the “help” function itself on which I did have a few comments I wanted to make, but rather the specific “service” that I had received–and the response was again of course to be made not by email but by my ticking off one or another of a drop down list of forced choices none of which remotely approached my particular situation.

“Google, I wanted to say, you guys are great engineers, and seem to be pretty competent designers but your service model sucks and I wouldn’t trust you with a ten foot pole.  The idea that your motto is “don`t be evil” is as ludicrously self-deluding as anything the top brass from Fukushima were telling themselves and anyone who would listen–and roughly as dangerous and evil advice as theirs…

Don`t get me wrong.. gmail and the other Google apps are marvelous–great and really smart services, nice design and I`m prepared to pay the price for using them by giving them the use of my information in exchange, and yes I`m back using my gmail account… But any company that is “selling” services to the general public, and services moreover which for some at least are personally, financially, socially critical services and which doesn`t have ANY point of access by which someone with a problem can get advice, find recourse, resolve an issue is acting in an absolutely irresponsible and in some circumstances very likely a legally (and even possibly criminally) irresponsible way.

It doesn’t take very long to imagine scenarios where peoples lives are put at risk; severe financial consequences could be envisaged; organizational and systemic collapse for certain companies/NGO`s etc. could be predicted as a direct result of this irresponsible and ultimately unconscionable behaviour. “Mommy, I know that the cell phone is turned off because you can`t afford it, and the computer in this library won`t let me do Facebook but I know that you do read your gmail… please wire me the money to come home….”  “Ahmed, I`m arriving in Kandahar at 8 pm GMT please pick me up”, “Jessie, your shipment of the vaccine will arrive at 5 pm, be sure to be there to pick it up and refrigerate or it will go bad” and so on and so on… Most times of course, gmail works and works (invisibly) well, but when it doesn’t…? Who you gonna call…?

Gmail indicates that they have some 750,000,000 users… roughly half of the number that folks are saying is the total number of Internet users worldwide.  To all intents and purposes gmail is the email service of the Internet and email is the one basic necessary irreplaceable Internet service–the one that has woven itself into the very fabric of social and economic life in virtually all parts of the world.  Twitter could go silent, Facebook could be closed, even the www could be tangled up in knots for brief periods but if email goes down things stop functioning for its users really really quickly and very dangerously. There are of course, alternatives to email (and of course to gmail) and they can swing into action fairly quickly as well, but the fact of the disruption of email causes an immediate and very costly and even at times dangerous break in the personal and other flows of information, commerce, and financial and social transactions.

Given the scale of email use it is quite clear that email has become a necessary public service whose basic functioning should not, as in the case of gmail be left to the vagaries and narrow financial interests or inhuman business models of individual companies such as Google.  That Google has chosen to adopt a business model which looks to automate all communication with its users cannot be allowed to continue given the risks that this presents to unwary and powerless individual users and the much much greater risk to broad elements of the global society that this presents.

If there is individual failure that it is impossible to get resolved, and if there are more general failures that are equally impossible to get resolved (and there is evidence of such on gmail`s ludicrously described “help forums”) then there is the almost inevitable likelihood of larger system failure with an equally impossible means for contact and correction on the part of Google.

In the recent announcement by the US NTIA of its cancellation of its RFP process for managing the global Domain Name System, the NTIA indicated that the decision was being made on behalf of the “global internet community”.   Further, a key stated justification for the decision was NTIA’s demand that the contractor – ICANN – must document that all its actions under this contract are in “the global public interest”.

Some have argued, probably correctly, that what the NTIA is referring to here is the attempt by the US (and other Governments) to interpose their definition of “the global public interest” into the management of the Internet infrastructure.

However, I would like to suggest that we, the Internet users should also and even primarily be defining what is in the “global public interest” with respect to the Internet and to my mind there is little about the Internet that is more central to the “global public interest” than a well functioning responsive transparent universally accessible email functionality.

Moreover, as we have just seen through the back-down of the US Goverment in the face of a truly massive (and unexpected onslaught) concerning SOPA/PIPA there are forces out there–who with their clout, numbers and smarts may be in a position to successfully take on and define what is meant by and how to operationalize the “global public interest” in the Internet sphere.

And reflecting on my recent gmail/email woes I think we could do much worse than directing our collective Internet enabled efforts towards the definition, elaboration and development of a suitable “management (regulatory?) framework” …

“With the view of developing communications between peoples by the efficient operation of the (email) postal services, and to contributing to the attainment of the noble aims of international collaboration in the cultural, social and economic” (Preamble to the Constitution of the Universal Postal Union)…

as the beginnings of a longer term process of defining the global public interest in the management/governance of the Internet.