3 November 2011

Whatever made you think it was your data anyway?

Some people are saddened at the abrupt removal of Google Reader’s sharing tools, and the social history that represented for those who used them. But this is only the latest example of a regular and predictable pattern of internet disappointment. Previously, folk have been distressed by the nuking of their messages on Hotmail, or gremlins deleting photos on their photo-sharing sites, or their thousands of Tweets not being lovingly archived, or being locked wholesale out of their Google Accounts, and so on and so forth. It’s always a real shame for those people affected, but by now it should no longer be a surprise. In case it helps, I hereby declare the following iron law of “free” internet services:

If you’re not paying for something, you have no reason to expect it to be there tomorrow.

This is an important corollary to the law “If you’re not paying for something, you’re not a customer; you’re the product being sold”. Everyone ought to understand that any data you store on a “free” internet service isn’t yours as ownership has hitherto been understood; it’s what you’re giving to the company as disguised payment for the service it’s offering. If the company lets you access that data from one day to the next, that’s awfully nice of them; if they stop doing so, what the hell did you expect? It was “free”. Whatever made you think it was your data anyway?

I am intrigued that so many of the high-profile geekocracy (who ought to know better but are apparently dim-brained slaves to digital fashion) seem now to be using Google+ as their preferred blogging platform. Why would anyone do that? Apart from the antiseptic anti-design imposed on everyone, there is no guarantee that Google+ will be any longer-lived than Buzz or Wave, or that it won’t suffer outages or catastrophic data wipes. I prefer to publish under my own domain names, with software I manage and control: I own the database (and local backups of it). I rent the infrastructure and can move my data wherever I like in 24 hours or so.

Of course, my way costs some money (but not much), and some technical know-how (rapidly acquired), while Google+ is “free” and easy. It depends on how much you value your own data. Is it less valuable to you than $10 or $20 a month and a few hours learning ftp chops? Okay then, carry on as you were! Me, I also happen to be a paying user of Gmail (through Google Apps), because that gives me more storage and a service-level agreement. (Because I’m an “enterprise” customer, I can complain when things go wrong.) Even then, I do as I would do if I were using the free version of Gmail: I back it up to local storage (over IMAP).

As the philosopher Slavoj Žižek has rightly pointed out, the so-called “cloud” is actually physical infrastructure located in meatspace and owned by a handful of corporations who represent a data oligopoly. The “cloud” is not your friend; it’s where your data goes when it ceases to be yours. Naturally, loyal Apple users will be happily entrusting their stuff to the iCloud’s infantilized anti-file-system too, and there will be a great whining outcry at the first (inevitable) failures and expungings, just as there was when Apple announced that everything stored on its incredibly bad previous attempt at a cloud-like service, MobileMe, would be summarily destroyed as part of the “transition” to iCloud. And MobileMe users were actually paying customers. Anyone who thinks Apple is going to be more careful about or respectful of its users’ stuff in the new “free” service is a dribble-dreaming iTard.

Let me propose the following neo-Stoical attitude to the problem, which will no doubt ease the psychic pain of the next OMG-my-data-has-gone-from-a-“free”-service! controversy. If your data exists only as hosted by “free” services on the internet, you should assume not only that it’s not your data, but that it doesn’t even exist at all. That way, you’ll be less upset when one day it vanishes without trace, and you can greet personal erasure with splendid equanimity.

  • Maybe it’s just to justify it to myself, but: I tend to think of things like Google+ and Facebook as short-lived parties. Maybe like old-timey raves. I go there because that’s where my friends are, but I sure as hell don’t bring anything I value or mind ditching when the place gets shut down.

    Anything I care about goes under a domain I own, or at least to a service with an API from which I can make regular backups. Ideally, I’ll move it all to my own self-hosted software when time and my laziness permit.

  • Well-written article, and one that more people ought to read. I use both Google and Facebook, but often think about the lack of privacy and what it is I’m actually agreeing with when I accept terms of service agreements.

    Many people seem to be quite oblivious about it all, and when I talk to family and friends about it, I get the feeling they think I’m paranoid.


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  • I tend to distinguish between the public cloud and the private version (DropBox, UbuntuOne, etc).

    The latter is essentially remote storage, and I’m paying for that service (I use Ubuntu Linux and UbuntuOne, which is built right into the OS). I recognize the dangers of my data being somewhere other than on my hard drive (I’m not putting *really* sensitive data out there), it’s also pretty damned convenient to sync the data across four different machines.

    The public cloud is a different matter, and my clients (I’m a copywriter and marketing consultant) tend to view me with some suspicion when I suggest that all those Facebook “Likes” they want to spend money creating have little lasting value; should Facebook fade away (those who say it can’t have already forgotten Second Life, MySpace, Friendster, etc), all that effort — and content — will fade with it.

    Suggesting they try to convert social media “fans” to a more concrete asset (like an email address) runs counter to the torrent of social media expertise that’s currently washing common sense downriver.

  • I awoke to a similar post with a different recommendation by Connor O’Brien. His case study: Google Reader and others. Google Reader isn’t dead, I thought? I log-in to my well-used account. A pop-up: “Google Reader will not be available after July 1, 2013”. I didn’t see this coming. 

    For a few years I have played around with various iPhone and iPad apps, trying to find the “right” RSS publisher. I have tried a few. None have stood out. I have always gone back to trusty if cumbersome Google Reader. Time to seek out a sustainable RSS tool. Recommendations?