christopher patrick bruton

Google is too big to care

February 15, 2021

I recently read about an infuriating experience with Google. The developer of Terraria, Andrew Spinks, had his entire Google account banned after an alleged TOS violation on YouTube. He has been unable to get an explanation, a resolution, or talk to a human in the 3+ weeks since the ban. As a result, he has chosen to cancel the upcoming release of his game on Google’s platform Stadia.

Even if there were a legitimate YouTube violation, a complete Google account ban is a seriously disproportionate consequence. As Ars Technica writes:

If you’re all in on the Google ecosystem, a Google account ban means you lose access to your entire email account; all the pictures you’ve ever taken; your cell phone service; your ability to communicate with friends and family; all your 2FA accounts; anything that uses Google OAuth; your app development business; your YouTube business and all your followers; your purchased apps, games, movies, music, and books; and all your contacts, documents, bookmarks, and notes. For many people, a Google account ban is an online death sentence[.]

This is a frightening prospect, and most people won’t even think about this until it actually happens to them. For many people Google holds the keys to their entire online identity, and losing access to that could mean real financial harm to their person and their business, as well as hours and days of time lost trying to rebuild.

I learned about Spinks’ ordeal as I went through a similarly infuriating though far less consequential experience with a different faceless corporation. Citibank disabled my credit card after my husband (an authorized user) tried to activate Apple Pay on a new phone. The account now has a “security hold” after I was unable to complete the prescribed verification process with their fraud department over the phone.

Screenshot from Citibank with text “We apologize for any inconvenience, but to protect your account, further charges may be limited until you have contacted our Customer Service Department at 800-825-0393 (TTY: 1-800-325-2865)”

In a way this is analogous to Spinks’ experience with Google. If Citi’s fraud detection algorithms suspect an Apple Pay activation is illegitimate, why not just deny/delay that specific activation, instead of disabling the entire account? Currently I can’t use the physical card or my previously verified Apple Pay on my own phone. Longstanding recurring monthly transactions are also being declined.

Citi claims that these measures are to “protect my account”. This is corporate doublespeak. I’m already protected by law from responsibility for fraudulent charges. This is all about protecting themselves. If my card is fraudulently used, they are on the hook for the charges. So at the slightest hint of anything unusual, they choose to disable the account and decline all future charges, regardless of the inconvenience to the customer.

Big tech and big finance might care about their customers in aggregate, but they have no real need to care about any one individual, save for perhaps their largest accounts. I’m planning to walk away from Citi after this experience, but even the loss of all potential profits from my use of Citi cards for the rest of my useful life is just a drop in the ocean. Citigroup earned $58 billion in revenue in 2020 alone. The lifetime profit they could earn from me might be on the order of 0.00001% of that amount.

Alphabet Inc. earned $182 billion in revenue in 2020. How much is the loss of Terraria for Stadia going to cost them? Not enough.

Google is too big to care.