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[Digital Simplicity] Think twice before you sign up for ‘free’ digital service


Last week, Google announced it would change its storage policy for Google Photos, which is now being used by more than 1 billion people across the globe. Simply put, it will end its free unlimited photo storage service from June, 2021. To back up more photos, users have to sign up for a paid plan.

I was neither shocked nor disappointed. I had already seen Google and other big tech companies calling it quits on their “innovative” services overnight. They didn’t -- and never will -- care about whether their fickle decisions could shatter individual users’ cherished memories, now mostly saved in digital formats. What they care about is developing a business model that ensures more profits, which is, to be fair, legitimate and even encouraged in the business sector.

What is regrettable is the way Google has misled unsuspecting users. The US tech giant falsely promoted the idea that its Photos service would replace traditional backup options such as external hard disk drives.

“Free up space on your device,” Google says in its official Photos website. “You can use Google Photos to save space on your phone when you remove photos from your device that are safely backed up.”

Now that Google has announced its decision to get rid of its free, unlimited option, the promotional message should be changed as follows: “You can use Google Photos to save space on your phone when you remove photos from your device that are safely backed up as long as you pay for it every month, and depending on your storage size, you have to pay more.”

Many of my friends have been using Google Photos to free up space on their smartphones while backing up their photos automatically. They might not be so concerned about Google using their photos to refine its face-recognition and machine learning algorithms. Now, they are suddenly required to weigh options for saving their photos and videos, but it seems unlikely that there will be a viable alternative service any time soon.

Earlier, Yahoo!, another US tech firm, introduced a free, unlimited photo storage in connection with Flickr photo service, but later scrapped the free option since it wasn’t sustainable.

For ordinary users, especially those who prefer saving their photos and videos in cloud services, Google’s latest move should be taken as a cautionary reminder that no service is truly free.

Big tech firms offer what they called “free” services in return for collecting and utilizing your personal data for research or advertising purposes. They gather and analyze your every digital move and use such information to sell more ads or products.

More importantly, popular digital services that are now storing an expanding collection of your writings, photos and videos might change their policies or go out of business one day.

Remember Cyworld? Years ago, Cyworld used to be Korea’s biggest social networking service, and a lot of Koreans put their photos on there. It is now out of business and there’s no way to recover those old photos.

In other words, what you post on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram could be gone in the future, since there’s no guarantee that they can safeguard your data against hacking or their own demise.

The implication of Google’s policy change for users is simple: Be prepared. Google said it would allow users to keep their photos uploaded until June of next year free of charge, but it may change its policy again.

Currently, Google allows users to upload as many YouTube videos as they want for free, but if the same logic is applied, Google might require heavy users to pay for their video storage. Who knows?

Worse, Google and other big tech companies make it extremely easy to upload text, photos and videos on their platforms, but do not provide fast, seamless and error-free tools to download them again -- in some cases, there is no download tool whatsoever.

Just imagine how long it will take if you want to copy every single post you have uploaded on Facebook over the years, and paste it onto your hard disk drive. Even if it’s technically possible, it is a time-consuming and frustrating task. And Google and big tech firms know that many users, dreadful of the tedious backup process, would opt for a paid plan.

This is a tactic that might be called “bait and charge” -- offering sweet free services that encourage users to upload their personal data, only to change the policy into a paid one, fully aware that users find it hard to move their data somewhere else.

My advice: Set up a data backup system before you sign up for a digital service, and take extra caution when the service is described as “free.”

By Yang Sung-jin (insight@heraldcorp.com)

Yang Sung-jin is the multimedia editor of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.
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