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The dangers of the cloud

For me, there were several themes which came out of the Robert Scoble Facebook spat. One was the obvious one that data portability requires, as a prerequisite, an understanding of who owns the data in the first place. Unless you have that, data portability is simply carte blanche to corporates to move and abuse your personal information.

But a second theme isn’t to do with portability: it’s to do with independence. When Scoble found himself erased, a big chunk of his internet life was erased at the whim of a single company. Scoble isn’t the only one to suffer like this: according to  TechCrunch UK, "UK entrepreneur Raj Anand, founded of kwiqq, has had his Facebook account disabled after he individually emailed all his friends and members of a Facebook group he runs". In other words, a bunch of people who had consented to being sent messages by him were sent a message, for which he was booted.

Third-party web-based services leave you vulnerable to this kind of arbitrary exclusion. The more you put into a single basket controlled by others, the more likely you are to suffer if your account is terminated. And, it shouldn’t be forgotten, once terminated you’re shafted – you can’t get any of your data out. If that data exists nowhere else (like photos you upload direct from a phone to Facebook, say) then they’re gone for good.

What I think makes this worse is the relationship between user and company. When you pay for a service, you’re a customer – and that gives you a certain level of expectation that you won’t be arbitrarily excluded from the service without warning, except for serious breaches of the terms of service.

But with free, ad-supported services, you’re not a customer: you’re just a part of the audience. And what matters with an audience isn’t the individual, but the size and the ability to target niches within it. Losing a single member really isn’t a big deal. Losing thousands would be, but terminating someone’s account without warning when they’re not a paying customer? Doesn’t really matter.

This, of course, is one of the reasons why the entertainment industry – which also deals with audience rather than customers – is so horrific at customer service. Customers are individuals: an audience is a mass, a mob, with individuals easily replaceable.

Facebook is one example, but it’s not the only one. If you use Google Documents, you should consider what would happen if Google decided to terminate your account. What would happen to your photos if Yahoo! killed your Flickr account?

If the possibility bothers you, then the obvious answer is to take back as much as possible of your online life into your own control. Don’t rely on free, ad-supported third parties, even if it’s convenient and cheap to do so. Remember: once you stop being a customer and start being "audience", you have much less in the way of control.

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