The Digital Trap

You can log in any time you like. But can you ever leave?

Dan Gillmore observes that, whether Yahoo ultimately closes or merely sells it off, we should learn an important lesson:

[T]he most important result may ultimately be what this move, among others. does for public understanding of the role of Internet service providers of all kinds. As’s recent takedown of the Wikileaks site it was hosting demonstrates, we are at the whims of the companies that provide the services, and they are increasingly demonstrating that we should be highly skeptical about their commitment to our data’s longevity.

We put our data — our websites, photos, bookmarks, email and more — on their sites. But they can, and do, change their terms of service at will, doing what they please with what we’ve put on their servers. And sometimes they just shut down the services they’ve been providing. They may do it for good reasons, or absurd ones. It doesn’t matter. The point is, they can.

As noted here some months ago, we all need a Plan B for just about everything we do online these days. If we give others a choke point over our communications, we are inviting them to throttle us.

That’s easier said than done, unfortunately.

While I have multiple email accounts, I’ve been relying primarily on Google’s Gmail for years.  I’m even one of their rare paying customers, paying a nominal fee for larger storage.   And, while it’s technically possible to back up your important email in various locations, it’s not easy to do.    If nothing else, we should at least export and merge our contacts periodically so that, if our main provider goes down for an extended period, we can at least fall back on another.

I never got into the habit of bookmarking things on  I’ve tried several of those services and found them more time consuming than valuable to my workflow.  But, once you’ve picked one and incorporated it, I’m not sure how you’d go about creating a backup.  Even if there are export and import functions, I doubt the various sites maintain data in similar ways.

Perhaps the most problematic of these is Facebook, which has become the go-to application for sharing photos and otherwise conducting social networking online.  Once people have spent years developing their network, they’re all but trapped.  If Facebook decides to charge onerous fees, impose unreasonable burdens, disregard the privacy of their users, or makes some other major change to their business model, most users will simply complain and comply.   In the early stages, there’s a free market.  Once people have become invested, though, there’s not an easy alternative.

James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jay says:

    Check out Backupify. Company started by Rob May, my partner in crime at co-founding CotC back in 2003.

  2. john personna says:

    A discussion of gmail backup techniques here.

    I tend to treat everything in the cloud as disposable. Ephemera. But the fact of the matter is, a service like delicious or gmail that “might” go away is probably still more robust than the average user’s backup regimen. The average gmail user now has years of archives. Something that would be haphazard in the outlook (or AOL!) days.

    Bottom line, it’s probably not that hard, with available tools, to keep whatever you want safe. Buy 2 separate brands of external terabyte+ drives, and keep them up to date in alternation.

  3. Michael says:

    Call me old fashioned, but I still use POP3 with my GMail, so I have a local copy of all my mail. I use Ubuntu, so my bookmarks and contacts are all synced though Ubuntu One, which means I have a local copy, so even if their service goes down I still have it.

    Also, did you know you can download a copy of everything you’ve ever put on Facebook? Every status update, photo, etc. There’s also an effort underway to make a distributed social network called Diaspora, so you have multiple providers instead of just one.

  4. sam says:

    “Call me old fashioned, but I still use POP3 with my GMail, so I have a local copy of all my mail.”

    Moi aussi, and my bookmarks have always been local. Hell, I’ve been lugging my old, old Netscape bookmark page around for years, and always make it my home page, updating it as needs be (simple editing does the trick).

  5. john personna says:

    So my infrequently used delcious account is now backed up and deleted. I feel so much better.

  6. matt says:

    Even a local copy of data is not permanent without some strict backup regime involving at least one (preferably more) complete copies of your data. IT’s also best to store one of those backup drives in a fireproof safe 😛

  7. Michael says:

    For archival purposes, yes. However, I don’t need/want to archive my bookmarks and contact list, or even 99.9% of my email. For those, it’s enough just to have convenient access to them, and to not lose them because of someone else’s arbitrary decisions.