I’ve been a huge Dropbox fan for many years, recommending the service enthusiastically to anyone who will listen.
(My workshop iPad Essentials for School Leaders has been taken by over 700 administrators, who have heard me rave about the effortless way Dropbox integrates with many iPad apps and other services).
Unfortunately, the $10 billion company has a little-known policy that’s making me reconsider.
Not The Kind of Limit You’d Expect
I have a paid ($9.99/month) 100GB account with Dropbox. The main features of the service are that it allows you to store, sync, and share files.
This last feature, sharing, is one that I rely on heavily to distribute HD video recordings of my workshops to my clients.
There are two ways to share files with Dropbox—either with a specific Dropbox user, or with anyone who has the link.
Since not all my workshop participants have Dropbox accounts, and since the files are too big for free accounts anyway (up to 3GB), I use the public link-sharing feature, and trust my clients not to share the links.
Dropbox allows users’ public links to consume up to 200GB per day of bandwidth, which is extremely generous. I can’t get that much bandwidth for under $10 anywhere, so I’m certainly not complaining about the limit itself.
The problem is what happens when you go over that limit.
How Dropbox Handles Excessive Bandwidth Usage
With most web-based services and hosting companies, if you go over your limit, you’re either charged overage fees, or your account is disabled until you figure out what to do and/or until the meter resets.
For our advanced users: Banned links
We ban shared and Public folder links when they’re responsible for an uncommonly large amount of traffic, or when they violate our Acceptable Use Policy (such as spam or malware). Find out more.
A reasonable person would assume that if you hit 200GB in a single day, your links will stop working for the rest of the day, then work again the next day, when your new 200GB allotment kicks in. And that’s pretty much what happens…the first two times. You get a nice email telling you that you went over the limit, and that you can login and reactivate your links immediately.
So far, this is a pretty good setup—I certainly like to know if I use that much bandwidth, because it means a lot of people are downloading my files, and it might mean a link was shared too widely. (Incidentally, Dropbox has a great feature that lets you revoke a public link without removing the file.)
The second time, though, your links stay broken for a fixed period (24 hours, if I recall correctly). Again, no big deal—24 hours later, my bandwidth allocation would reset and I’d be back in business. And while the public links are deactivated, you can still sync with your own devices and collaborators who have their own Dropbox accounts.
But what happens next is exceedingly odd, something I’ve never seen with any web service.
In fact, I can’t think of any comparable scenario in any industry. It’s simply baffling.
After your 2nd overage, you’re subjected to an escalating period of banishment. My 3rd and current ban is 5 days long, and I don’t even want to know how long the 4th and beyond will be.
No, there’s nothing about this on the Dropbox website, in the help docs, or in the terms of service. It’s a complete surprise, and completely out of sync (pun intended) with how every other service in the world handles overages.
Of course, Dropbox has this banishment policy to deal with piracy, which I’m sure is a big problem when you make it easy for people to share big files with lots of people very cheaply.
The problem is, Dropbox is a service for sharing big files with lots of people very cheaply. That’s what I’m paying for. I’m using the service as it’s intended. I run a business in which I create original HD training videos that I distribute to my clients via my paid Dropbox account.
Yet Dropbox sees no reason to treat me differently from someone pirating Disney movies.
No Analytics, No Warning, No Recourse
After the first overage, I logged into my Dropbox account to see which files were being downloaded.
I had just sent out a workshop recording, but the numbers didn’t quite add up. With my email service provider, I can see how many times the links were clicked, and the number of clicks didn’t come close to what it would take to use up 200GB of bandwidth in a single day.
So I figured it was existing clients downloading older workshops and materials, which is entirely possible. I have over 1500 clients and some 80GB of HD video in Dropbox, all shared with (secret) public links.
But astoundingly, Dropbox provides no analytics on bandwidth usage. I can’t see which files were downloaded, or how much of the usage was linked to which folders, or anything at all.
In fact, you can’t even see how much bandwidth you’ve used. You only find out when you go over, which is how I got so deep in this mess.
For more than a year, I’ve been using Dropbox extensively to share my workshop videos with clients. I had no idea I was in danger of using too much bandwidth, and in fact no way to find out.
With a normal web server, log files reveal exactly which files were accessed at what times. This information is essential in figuring out what’s causing excessive usage.
With most web services, you get detailed analytics on your usage, so you can make adjustments to stay within the limits.
And with some other web services, like YouTube, usage isn’t metered, so it’s a non-issue.
With Dropbox, instead of logs, stats, and analytic tools, you get this charming explanation in their FAQ:
How do I know which links contributed most to the ban? Can you provide traffic data for my links?
Unfortunately, we’re not able to provide details on which of your links contributed most to your account going over the limit, or how much traffic each link generated.
Wait, so my usage is being metered, but Dropbox can’t be bothered to keep me in the loop?
If I get a big water bill, I can go outside and read the meter for myself. If the meter’s spinning when the faucets are all off, I’ll know I have a leak.
If I spend all the money in my bank account, I can at least see where it went.
By analogy, the Bank of Dropbox would never let you check your balance, wouldn’t give you a statement, and would put you in time-out when you ran out of money.
What Dropbox Support Says
In response to my support tickets, Dropbox staffers have simply reiterated the ban is in accordance with company policy, and sent me links to the explanations I’ve included above.
They don’t seem to have the power to reactivate my links, or to make any kind of exceptions to the escalating ban policy. I’ve asked repeatedly, and I’ve asked to speak to someone higher up the food chain, but to no avail.
Their suggested solution is to remove all of my public links and re-create them, which sounds reasonable until you consider that I have 80GB of files shared with more than fifteen hundred people. It would take weeks to break and remake the links, update my membership websites, email all my clients with an explanation, and so forth.
Even worse, this wouldn’t solve the problem; in fact, it would escalate it. If I email all my clients saying “here’s the new link,” what are they going to do? Click it and download the file, of course. I’d use 200GB in no time.
I don’t blame Dropbox for capping bandwidth usage at 200GB/day, and in fact, I’d be happier with a much lower limit (or a higher price for the service) if it were remotely possible to control my usage while still using the service as intended.
What To Do?
So, to recap:
- I’m using a file-sharing service to (-gasp-) share files
- There’s a 200GB/day cap, but I have no way to tell how much bandwidth I’m using until I’ve exceeded the cap
- There’s no way to tell which files are being downloaded and contributing to the excessive usage
- I’m banned for longer and longer each time this happens, so my clients can’t access the files
- Company policy is to treat everyone like a pirate
It’s hard to move 80GB of files very quickly, but I’m in the process of moving my videos to Vimeo Pro, which offers analytics as well as very generous limits (no limit on plays, and 20GB/week upload bandwidth).
So, if you’re at all planning to use the “public links” feature of Dropbox, you might want to reconsider until the situation improves, and if you’re going to pay for a file-hosting service, you may want to look elsewhere.