As our lives have become more and more public over the last decade, we have to ask ourselves whether we down the data that we “create.”
No doubt, I own the words on this blog post as I am writing them. I know for sure, because I am making them up one word as a time as I go.
However, they are not stored in any place that I own. They are stored on some website server hosted by WordPress, and frankly, I don’t even know where in the world. As soon as I click on that “Save Draft” button to the right of this column, this sentence could actually be sitting somewhere in the dark arctic night in North Sweden, or in Atlanta, or in North Carolina, or right here down the street in San Diego, exactly where I will never know.
I haven’t even backed up this blog. If WordPress were to vanish overnight and prevent access to its servers… Gone. I probably agreed to those terms in one of those Terms and Conditions forms that I signed by checking and clicking many years ago when I created my WordPress account. I may think I have the right to my data in my blog, that I own it, but do I really?
Based on data of 2012, WordPress powers one of every 6 websites on the Internet, over 60 million in all, with 100,000 new ones being created every day. WordPress sites attract 330 million visitors who view 3.4 billion pages every month.
With numbers like this, especially 100,000 new sites a day, I don’t think WordPress would care about my data. So I really don’t own it, unless I make provisions to back it up.
That’s just WordPress.
The situation is much more dire with Facebook. Generally I like to say that if you don’t pay for a website you heavily use, you ARE THE PRODUCT. That’s definitely the case with Facebook. Facebook is a business that sells the information about you that you give it. It’s as simple as that.
Have you ever tried to get rid of stuff you have posted on Facebook? If you did, you will know it’s pretty much impossible to do in any efficient way. You have to select, delete and confirm deletion one post at a time. That means three clicks per post, and a few more every five posts, when you have to refresh the current page. If you have thousands of posts, it’s going to be a very long and tedious effort to remove the material you think you own from their site, if not practically impossible. There are scripts you can download that supposedly do this in some automatic fashion. I tried two of them, and I could not make either work. Perhaps they don’t work, perhaps I didn’t use them right, but be assured, it’s complicated.
In the past three or four years, pretty much all the books I have bought are in Kindle format. I carry all my books around with me wherever I go. I purchased all these books for prices higher than I used to pay for standard paperbacks. Amazon says I own those books. I just can’t touch them. Amazon agrees to provide them to me any time I ask for them in electronic format.
What would happen if Amazon shut down tomorrow? Would I still own my books? Does my contract with Amazon ensure that I own them? What if Alibaba bought out Amazon tomorrow, and the Chinese government took over control of Alibaba the day after that? What about my property then? I am sure there would be class action lawsuits – the stuff trial lawyers dream about – and after decades of court cases I’d get a monetary award for the value of the property that was taken from me.
In practical terms, I am well aware that my books are mine only as long as Amazon is a successful and continuing company.
It depends on the data – but the entire system of online life and online data has not been stress-tested. Purchase and store online at your own risk. Be prepared that it does not take a house fire to have it all taken away – but seemingly benign market shifts could result in disaster.