Google’s email nastiness

By Felix Salmon
August 18, 2010


Yesterday afternoon, I started wondering why my steady stream of emails seemed to have come to a halt. It didn’t take long to get the answer: emails to me were being bounced back to their senders as undeliverable, on the grounds that my Gmail account was over quota.

Naturally, I immediately paid Google the $5 they wanted to upgrade to 20 GB of storage from the free 7.5 GB. But the email is still bouncing, and Google says it could take up to 24 hours before they start letting it through again. When I log in to my Gmail account, 14 hours after I upgraded, I still get the warning message saying I’m out of space and can’t receive any emails. (Incidentally, the link to Google’s “tips on reducing your email storage” provides no such thing, it just pulls up a page telling me how much storage I have.)

There are two extremely annoying things, here, for an old-fashioned person like me who still relies to a large extent on email. I’ve been using email for 17 years now, and I’ve encountered my fair share of email problems along the way. But in every case, the email ended up sitting there on my mail server until the problem was resolved. When Google decides I have an email problem (that I haven’t paid them enough money), however, they don’t keep the mail on the server until the ransom is paid. Instead, they just declare “a permanent error” and bounce it back to the sender. That’s incredibly aggressive and rude, and means I will now never receive a large number of emails which might well have been very important.

More annoying still is the fact that Google never told me this was about to happen. I’ve never used their web interface: while I like the reliability and spam-filtering abilities of the Gmail service, I don’t like checking my email in a browser. So I don’t: instead I use Apple’s Mail applications on my computer, iPad, and iPhone. Had I logged in to the Gmail website, I would have seen a warning telling me that I was running out of quota. But not once did Google send me an automated email saying that I was about to run out of storage space.

When Chris Anderson says that the web is dead, he’s talking about new applications which are supplanting things we used to use the web for. What he doesn’t mention is that millions of people never made the switch to the web in the first place, at least when it comes to email. Google behaves as though everybody using Gmail uses the web interface, when a moment’s thought would show that to be false. And then it imposes a punishment on people who run out of quota or who delay too long in paying which seems out of all proportion to the crime.

In any case, if you’ve tried to reach me via email and the message has bounced, try resending your message — with any luck it’ll get through now. I just worked out that although the paying-for-more storage solution takes time to work, the deleting-spam-emails solution seems to work immediately. It would be nice if Google mentioned that somewhere.

Alternatively, send it to felix.salmon at reuters. I came close to running out of quota there, too, recently, but they became very insistent that I had to delete old emails long before they bounced anything. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, but it was nothing compared to Google’s nasty and passive-aggressive behavior.


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If you talk to them, you might ask how many have hit that 7.5g boundary. It could be a bit of a corner case, and hence the lack of attention.

Posted by jpersonna | Report as abusive

I’ve found many companies have this same sort of problem. They set everything up to be automated but if you are a special case, like someone who doesn’t use gmail on the web or someone who lives outside the USA or someone who doesn’t speak English, you are sort of doomed. There’s no backup system, or at least none that works well. It’s remarkable how programmers and customer-service experts seem to think that “everyone” will have access to the same conveniences as them, such as high-speed internet and 1-800 numbers. It’s a sort of high-tech provincialism that would be quaint if it weren’t such a pain in the butt.

Posted by Setty | Report as abusive

When my inbox would get too full at college, the university’s solution was to send me 2 emails a day telling me about it. For no clear reason, the warnings came with a massive file size. If I didn’t check it for a weekend, I’d come back to find I was over limit because of the warnings themselves.

Posted by drewbie | Report as abusive

You’re right– Google not caching your over-limit email for at least for a week or two, and not notifying you (via email!) that you are over the limit are both major errors. Even worse, I just don’t believe that the Gmail flowchart just goes off the edge of the paper when you exceed the storage limit, so this must be deliberate policy on Google’s part.

Posted by MattF | Report as abusive

It would be nice for Google to send you an email telling you that you’re running out of free email space. On the other hand, you are quite demanding for someone receiving a free service, and from Google’s perspective you’re not even viewing ads on to boot.

Posted by SteveHamlin | Report as abusive

You’re coming off as very entitled (frankly, bitchy) by throwing a blogfit about this, Felix.

You’re in a very rare situation, as someone near the limit who doesn’t use the browser. Its not surprising that a free product wasn’t optimally set up for your situation – especially since you’re among the most expensive gmail customers (you miss the ads but max out the space you use).

Posted by AnonymousChef | Report as abusive

What Steve and Chef said. Google owes you nothing, and in fact still calls Gmail beta software (whether that is a reasonable characterization is a topic for another day). Your beef is especially ironic coming from someone in the publishing industry, which has been trying to make the case for many years that content should not be free. So we should pay for content, but not for software and services that we count on?

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

“I will now never receive a large number of emails which might well have been very important.”

Not to be a dick, but if they’re important the sender will resend, and if the sender doesn’t resend they aren’t that important. Deep breaths.

Posted by wwhyte | Report as abusive

Did you really need 7.5 gigs of old e-mail sitting on a server somewhere? Most of that storage space was probably image attachments you didn’t even care about. sheesh

Posted by Thalya | Report as abusive

I thought the general idea about Email is to download it into your own machine and then delete it from the server !!!

Leaving old messages on an internet email server is, shall I say, not wise.

For all I know, the email sever may decide to delete ALL messages on a user account over a certain age. It has been known to happen.

If I EVER had 7.5GB of email on an internet email server, it would be due to my being dead…


Posted by Jim_P | Report as abusive

I’d rather have email on both an internet server and my hard drive than just on my hard drive. Frankly I trust Google’s ability to protect its servers more than I trust my ability not to drop my laptop. Plus, leaving it on the server means it’s accessible from multiple devices – I check email on my phone, my work computer, my home desktop and my laptop.

Posted by GingerYellow | Report as abusive

The issue is that Gmail (at least the free version) is not an Enterprise product. Google products are, for the most part, designed by Google engineers based on what they themselves want to use. Everyone at Google uses the web interface, so they sometimes forget that not everyone does. The failure to send you a warning email isn’t the result of a deliberate decision, nor is it Google being passive aggressive. Google measures release cycles in days or weeks, not months. If they don’t have this feature, it’s simply that they haven’t gotten around to implementing it. Maybe they’ll give it to an intern next summer.

Posted by alexrs | Report as abusive

Are you out of your mind?

If you don’t want to run out of space, download and archive your e-mail. It’s a free service – there are many good reasons to criticize Google, but your first world problem in this case is certainly not one of them.

Also, when important e-mails are returned, most of us resend them or find other ways of contacting the individual in question.

Posted by andrewanon | Report as abusive

Wow, to let your inbox fill upward to 7Gigs. I wouldn’t let my inbox fill past 500mb. Why are you using free Gmail like an enterprise solution? Last I check, all of Google’s email offerings (Gmail, Google Apps Gmail) was still in beta. One of the problems I see with using and holding old emails/attchments with free Gmail is I don’t know what time/date Google email system will scrub old emails. Is it one year, upwards to 2 years, or 180 days, etc? As users we don’t know so you’re taking a risk holding old important emails on the free accounts.

I use Google Apps and I scrub my own inbox every quarter. The highest my inbox has ever been was 10mb (all text email, no attachments. I hate attachments). Every quarter I delete old, non-important email. Move important email off Google servers to my own file server in an archive folder. I rarely go back and view archived important emails, just keep them as references. Theres nothing like starting a new quarter with a tidy, empty inbox.

The paid enterprise version of Google Apps I would not have a problem leaving ALL my emails on the servers. Google has stated, Enterprise customers get more space (25g) so users never have to delete any emails. No emails will be deleted if you use Google Enterprise Apps. I like that idea and it’s the only reason I would upgrade to Enterprise. Like you I understand the importance of archiving my messages in one locations but I just can’t trust doing that using free Gmail/Apps.

Posted by josefhiggins | Report as abusive

From what I can make out, Google’s support organization is designed with the ethos outlined by a few of the posters above: the product is permitted to be horrible in certain corner cases and users who experience those horrors do not need to be addressed in a particularly timely or effective manner since, well, they’re a minority. It’s not a approach limited to their free services, either.

Posted by justins | Report as abusive

gmail free – Satisfaction guaranteed, or your money back. Your problem is not unique, though: offers 10 mbyte of free space, and a number of friends continue to use this service provider.

Posted by owe.jessen | Report as abusive

Felix, I think you’re out of line to be too cranky about them not handling well the case where you access the mail via POP (a capability no other free e-mail provider even offers, I believe), thus skipping the ads, and also save large quantities of stuff.

Also, your implication that they laid a trap for you in order to make money is I think misguided. The number of users who reach the limit is very small — the policy is a defense against excessive use, not a bank-style surprise fee.

Re: gmail as beta s/w: they’ve been out of Beta for a year.

Posted by nelson.sproul | Report as abusive

Actually, one of the features of IMAP is that it will tell you how much quota you are using. Gmail appears to support this. The problem then is your own mail client, which should be warning you if you are near quota.

Posted by slashb | Report as abusive

slashb above is right. The people you should complain to are Apple.
If, in, you right-click/control-click on one of the accounts in your inbox, you will get a list of commands for the account, the last of which is “get Account Info” which will, in turn, display your email quota and how much you are using.

I’d personally regard it as a major bug on Apple’s part if they don’t notify you in some way as you get close to this limit (though I am nowhere close to my limit, so I can’t speak from experience). Certainly what I’d hope they would do is a variety of things, from perhaps turning the mailbox icon red to throwing up dialogs once one gets to, say, 95% usage, and that they would do this across both OSX and iOS.

What a normal person should do at this point to deal with the issue is to submit a bug to People seem to feel this is pointless, but I report tons of bugs, and I get plenty of feedback from Apple asking me for details. The main thing to remember is that, usually, the bug is not going to be fixed and a new version released tomorrow. Best case it will be picked up in the next dot release, which happen every three months or so; and quite likely it will not be picked up until the next major release, which for 10.7 will be, your guess is as good as mine, September 2011?

Felix, of course, has a bully pulpit and there may be some value in writing a mea culpa post in which you both apologize to google (though perhaps the “your quota is low” email idea is a good one), and call Apple out for not warning the user. On the other hand can you even be sure that any of the relevant Apple engineers even read Felix? Apple is not a monolithic borg, and just because some guy in Time Machine team reads Felix and learns about this bug doesn’t mean that guy even knows anyone on the team to tell about what he saw. Certainly submitting to is the most reliable way to get the problem resolved.

Posted by name99 | Report as abusive

A friend of ours had a similar problem. She hit the limit, and fortunately was using the Gmail web interface so she saw the message — but then couldn’t delete mails fast enough to free up space. Every day was another chunk of time finding messages to delete — only to be hit with another big email that zeroed it out again. She had no idea about imap and had to get help.

As a result of this, we built as a free service to identify large emails. It adds labels for big, very big and ultra big messages so you know what to delete first. Hopefully this can help some other people too. (And if it does, a donation will help to keep it running!).

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