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Hazy Terms in the Cloud

27. februar, 2014
Cloud storage services that allow you to store your personal files and folders online are on the rise. The Norwegian Consumer Council has analysed* the terms of service of the most popular cloud storage services. The survey shows that there are large differences in the services' terms and rights.

Content ownership and protection against data loss

Tabell. Grafikk.
Note: Microsoft OneDrive, previously known as SkyDrive, was studied when the service was still marketed as SkyDrive. However, at the time of publishing, the terms have remained unchanged.

It is a common concern that you lose ownership of your files when storing them in the cloud. However, we have found that all the surveyed service providers let you keep ownership of the files you upload, and none of them limit your rights to the files.

While the services do not claim ownership, they still need a license to store and transfer your files. While the licenses are generally limited, Microsoft OneDrive and Google Drive have much broader licenses, which also give them the ability to use your content in other services. Google has the broadest license, which also extends to their partners and continues even when you stop using their service.

We have formerly criticised Google for their decision to “combine data from all of your services… into a single profile without user consent and without any meaningful opportunity for users to opt-out“. The French Data Protection Authority agreed with this opinion when it 8th of January fined Google for the combined terms, stating that: “it permits itself to combine all the data it collects about its users across all of its services without any legal basis.“

None of the service providers offer a data loss guarantee; in fact some of the services go to great lengths to waive any responsibility to keep your data safe. This means that you are at risk of losing access to your data in the event of a technical failure or if the service shuts down. Therefore, you should not store your data exclusively on a cloud storage service, but always have a backup in case you lose access to your files in the cloud.

Amendment of the terms, account termination

Tabell. Grafikk.
* Dropbox only gives notice «if the revision, in [their] sole discretion, is material»
** The service’s terms are unclear

Privacy

Tabell. Grafikk.
* Dropbox, OneDrive, iCloud and Google Drive do not state how long it takes to delete files
** Google gives notice «when appropriate», which is less committing than other services
*** SugarSync makes no statement about this in their terms or elsewhere on their site

All the surveyed service providers let you delete your account at any time. When you delete your account, all information uploaded to the service should also be deleted. While Dropbox, OneDrive, iCloud and Google Drive state that they will delete your files, they make no promise as to how long it will take. To get the best score in this category, the service must state how long it keeps your files.

From a privacy perspective it is important that users know about data request from authorities. This gives users a chance to defend themselves against overreaching law enforcement requests. However, only Dropbox and SpiderOak formally promise to give users notice, while Google vaguely states that it will give notice «when appropriate».

Consumers have the expectation that the files they store are private. However, only SpiderOak, Dropbox and Jottacloud make it clear that they will not look at the content of your files. On the other hand, Microsoft has the right to «review […] user-created content at will», and iCloud has similar terms. These provisions are too broad, as they in principal give service employees the right to browse the users’ files or for the provider to analyse your content for other purposes than storage.

Readability of the terms of service

An aspect of the terms that was not formally studied, but still deserves a mention, is the readability of the terms. Google and Dropbox had short contracts with relatively plain language. Although Microsoft’s terms were among the longest in the study, they use a surprisingly simple language in an easy to understand question/answer format, making them the easiest terms to analyse. Apple iCloud, on the other hand, has technical legal language and no text formatting, making them the hardest terms to read.

Read more about the study in the Consumer Council’s press release.

*We have analysed the terms of service of 7 of the most popular online storage services in Norway between November and December 2013. Both Norwegian and English terms have been analysed. In addition to the terms of service and privacy policies, we have also collected information from the service providers’ websites.

Full report: Unfair cloud storage terms_report