Ok, so I’ve just received another “in the event of account deletion, here is my backup information,” email from a friend. You could, given the news among tech folks this week, infer that my friend is a pseud (or an alt, or her parents named her something that an algorithm has determined is Just Not Real), but that’s not the case. She’s a person, like you or me, with a reasonable name, who has a lot of important communications tied up in a free service. This is a free service that has done a lot of good over the years. Some would say it provides a lifekit of communication tools for the online Joe – and it, like many other services, forms a large part of the platform for Joe’s online persona.
But now this service has, at the very least, an image problem. Because people are noticing that this free service has the ability to immediately and in some cases irrevocably delete access to all the magic tools we’ve been using, as well as zap into oblivion all the things we’ve done with those magic tools.
And the response to an outcry by many people seems to be, “well, it’s not like you’re paying for it.” See also, “We’re still working out the kinks,” and “mistakes may have been made.” Other services that provide “lifekit” accounts in various platforms (gaming, business, storage) have in the past also used responses including “you seem to have broken the Terms of Service” (in some cases this is true, in some, you’ve merely been accused of breaking the TOS by a rival, but either way, sorry), “we’re still in Beta,” and “ooops.”
Ok. So. This has me thinking. It has others thinking. It should have you thinking too.
Facebook and Google aren’t the only cloud-based services that take occasional/proactive action against pseudonymity and multinymity. They are the biggest. And for years, one of them has allowed folks to create accounts for all the different facets of their lives – one might have an email account that is [myname]-shopping@, another called [mybada**nameontwitter]-feedback@, and etc. The reasons for this include not wanting to clutter your main email with shoppingspam and not wanting to give your main email out to folks you don’t know that well. In the cases of those with public-facing professions (writers, musicians, bloggers) and private lives (families, for instance) it may also include not wanting to expose these to the all-purpose glare (as in bright shiny light, but also as in that look you’d imagine an internet troll would have on its face when it typed that nasty, threatening, horrible post that kept you up at night, just because it could do so anonymously) of the Internet.
This isn’t a post about pseudonymity, multinymity, and anonymity vs. uninomity. We’ve lived with pseudonymity and multinymity for a long time – authors and musicians have used pen names for almost as long as they’ve used pens. The advent of cloud-based services and our willingness to put our data in the hands of well-meaning companies that will then allow us to access that data through the service that they have built and own? That’s a relatively new thing. (Brick and mortar parallels include utilities and banks, but there are distinct differences here.)
This is a post about ownership, specifically of data, once it’s gone into any one of a number of cloud-based services, and specifically what happens when one of those services either goes away or decides that for whatever reason, you can’t have access to that data anymore, with little to no warning. Ownership and access, people. When you’ve got all of your billing and banking and business accounts tied to a single email (hint, not good), and all your data in the cloud instead of on your laptop, you’ve let go of the ability to reliably control access to information you need. Hiccups happen. Fans fail, power goes out, the cleaning lady carries a bucket of water into the server room…. and sometimes someone (or an algorithmic variant on someone) flicks the wrong switch.
One hopes that a shutoff will never happen. One hopes that one does not at this point sound like the kind of person who stuffs her mattress with gold bars (I don’t, no need to come lookin’) and MREs (blechhh). But one also hopes that we can start a discussion, a logical one, that includes the main resource providers in this game, about ownership and access to data in the cloud.
Do we want, and are we willing to make, duplicates on and offline of the data that we need access to, wherever we are? Do we want to feel (as, I think many have felt until the past few weeks) as if our data is up there, safe and happy, waiting for us to call for it, no matter what name we call it by, once we set up an account? I kind of, in my naivete, do want that. It’s one less thing I have to worry about. If that’s what we’re hoping for, what kinds of contracts do we need to forge with the folks who own the clouds?
I’m looking forward to your thoughts on this.
*Yes, apparently this is song week. Thanks, Joss.