When Google bots go wrong -- one user's story

Dylan Marcheschi felt the full brunt of a faulty Google algorithm; now he's urging the company to offer real customer support

Dylan Marcheschi found out the hard way what happens when you get on Google's bad side. Worse, he didn't do anything to deserve it, and he was victimized not by a human but by a bot.

About two weeks ago, the artist from Brooklyn was having an email conversation with a friend in Thailand when he received a message telling him his Google account had been disabled. Everything he'd built up over the past seven years had just gone poof.

[ Also on InfoWorld.com: Cringely said it before, but it's worth repeating -- Google's biggest problem? It's too rational. | For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter and follow Cringely on Twitter. ]

Seven years' worth of Gmail messages, more than 200 contacts, 4,800 photos stored on Picasa, 500 articles saved to his Google Reader account, his Blogger.com site, his Google Calendar appointments, his saved Google Maps, all of his Google Voice messages, all of his bookmarks -- gone in an instant.

Worse, there was no one to talk to about it. There is no customer support line for Google -- no email support, no live chat. All you can do is post a message on a forum and hope that somebody -- anybody -- weighs in with an answer. But for Dylan, nobody did.

So Marcheschi went public. Using a pseudonym, Thomas Monopoly, he posted a 3,000-word diatribe on TwitLonger, which he began promoting via Twitter. That tale went viral, though it got mixed up with similar stories of people who got purged from Google+ because they used pseudonyms instead of real names.

Yesterday Dylan/Thomas finally found out what happened to his account. A Google bot that routinely scans Picasa photo collections for child pornography flagged one of the photos Dylan had posted as illegal. That was all it took -- seven years of living la vida Google down the memory hole.

Per Marcheschi, that image that started all of this was part of a collection he had posted online under the title "The Evolution of Sex." It included images of an ancient Pompeii fertility statue, the Venus of Willendorf, an ad from a phone book, the cover of a Japanese comic book, and a photo of a Japanese vending machine that allegedly sells used underwear worn by young girls. The collection also included two photos of an apparently underage girl receiving a bit too much physical attention from a much older gentleman. One of those photos -- now removed from that collection -- was flagged by Google's bot as kiddie porn. He writes:

The image that they considered a violation of the Terms of Service is not among them and was more explicit, but it was created by the same photographer as the overtly suggestive last image, whose work is apparently well known and contentious for the obvious reasons of skirting legal boundaries….I too found the image bordering on the limits of what is legally permissible and hoped to highlight the fact that it is allowed to exist within a grey area of legality. The fact that it has caused this controversy only emphasizes that point.

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