How helping Latin American researchers cost me my GMail account

Have you heard of the LatinX in AI social event? It is a social event organized by LXAI intended to bring together Latin American researchers in NLP and AI. I joined as a participant in their EMNLP 2020 edition, and I am now volunteering to run the 2021 version to take place soon parallel to EACL 2021.

One of my tasks as part of the organizing committee is to send invitations to those who joined last year. And you can probably see where this is going: even though I have written permission from these 116 participants to contact them and even though I followed Google's best practices for sending emails, my 18-years-old GMail account was nonetheless blocked and it has remained so ever since.

I have now spent several days in Google support hell leaving no stone unturned and no link unclicked. If you have never tried to get support from Google, the following diagram illustrates all the maddening steps I have followed during the account recovery process with no luck so far:

Diagram showing several infinite loops when following support instructions

The "Number not accepted" box is particularly annoying: I have always refused to give Google my personal telephone number because there is no guarantee that they won't use it for tracking me like Facebook was caught doing, and you cannot enable 2-factor-authentication without providing one first (trust me, I tried). As a result, Google will not trust any number I give now - it is mildly funny to read that the telephone number of the Fortune Global 500 company where I work "has already been used too many times for verification" even though I had never used it before. Either whoever used my desk before me was a serious spammer, or Google is not being as honest as one would expect.

But you know what hurts the most? That all of this could have been avoided if I hadn't insisted on personalizing the emails. I hate emails addressed to "Dear sir or madam" and therefore went out of my way to write the script that would pull people's names and display it properly. If I had written a generic email instead and dumped 100+ addresses in the web interface I would probably still have my account. I know it isn't much, but that's all I could do to show people that I care about them receiving their invitation. No good deed goes unpunished.

Maybe in the future I will write about all my complaints. One particularly mean example are the emails I still get in my recovery account letting me know that someone has been trying to access my account but that I shouldn't worry because they didn't let them in. But for today, I want to leave you with two parting thoughts.

First: this story is not new, and if you have all your eggs in the Google basket it is only a matter of time before you lose something important with no recourse. Maybe they will remove your browser extension, ruin your startup, kill your game, terminate your Android app, delete your YouTube channel, or who knows what else. So be prepared. I can assure you that if I had not started using my own email domain years ago I would now be truly screwed with no way forward. If you are not willing to leave Google products for good, at the very least get a local copy of your data with Google Takeout and keep it safe.

And second: I still need that account to organize the event. So if you know someone who works for Google, please tell them to write me an email to get this sorted out. I would be slightly sad of losing the epic burn "Google closed my 18-years-old account forever for helping Latin American researchers", but I'll let it go if that means moving this event forward.

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