Google Docs: Terms of Disservice or Evil 2.0?

Users of Google Docs agree to grant Google a “worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license to reproduce” their content. Is there a business naïve enough to agree to this?


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Speculation has been rampant for years, literally, about whether Google would ever make a major play for the enterprise. This issue surfaced earlier in the year with a very unimpressive Google/Salesforce.com alliance, and it came up more recently with respect to Google’s terms of service for its Docs and Spreadsheets, an online service that claims to be able to give Microsoft’s Office monopoly a run for its money.

With this latest brouhaha surrounding Docs and Spreadsheets in mind, it’s pretty clear that we can end the speculation and go right to a definitive statement: Google has a long long way to go to be a major challenger in the enterprise. Even with the right functionality (which it so far doesn’t have), Google’s terms of service and its ability to provide a safe and reliable space for corporate use has much to be desired.

Let’s start with the most recent problem regarding Google’s service agreement with its Docs and Spreadsheet customers. (Which you can find here.) What is clear amidst some very unclear, ambiguous language – full of logical and grammatical gaps large enough to drive a truck full of lawyers through – is that Google hasn’t given careful thought to addressing the needs of corporate users for security, privacy, and service levels. In fact, either Google has been careless in defining these terms of service, or it has been deliberately vague and misleading.

(A third alternative is also possible, that Google has real evil intent in misleading users and intends to use Docs and Spreadsheets in ways that would be genuinely detrimental to its corporate customers. More on that later.)

The basic problem with Google’s service agreement is that the language implies that while Google claims no ownership over the content in any of its on-line apps, users “grant Google a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license to reproduce, adapt, modify, publish and distribute such Content on Google services for the purpose of displaying, distributing and promoting Google services.” And Google further reserves the right to “syndicate” that content in any way it sees fit.

Translation: your private Docs and Spreadsheets content may end up in a Google marketing promo.

If that doesn’t have you corporate security managers reaching for the Tums, here’s what the same service agreement says about your rights to use Docs and Spreadsheets when and how you want. Google reserves the right to terminate your service at any time “for any reason” and – get this – deny you access to your data. And Google reserves the right to “refuse to accept, post, display or transmit any Content in its sole discretion.”

Okay, one more funny line to get your legal department to pay attention. As a user of Docs and Spreadsheets, you agree to “indemnify” Google (this means paying all fees and penalties) for any third party legal action Google and “its subsidiaries, affiliates, officers, agents, employees, advertisers, licensors, suppliers or partners” may have to engage in as a result of any of your actions with respect to using these services.

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