Imagine you’ve got a lot of family heirlooms — old furniture, photos, and files — you want to keep but have no way to store yourself. The logical thing to do is to cart all the stuff down to some temporary storage facility, rent out a locker and put it away. Now, imagine that some years after you set up your storage, the company goes out of business, sends out letters warning their former customers that they have three days to clear everything out of the facility and find a new place to store their junk. Then, at the end of three days, the company builds a bonfire, and burns all unclaimed property to ashes.
It’s a pretty good analogy for what happened a few weeks ago to the users of Yahoo’s GeoCities Web-hosting site. Users were notified via e-mail that they had one month to retrieve the sites they had created before Yahoo would take the relevant servers off-line forever. Yahoo offered users the opportunity to pay to keep data stored online, but not all users got the message in time. Since GeoCities just closed down, it may take a little while for the loss of content to register, but the similar closure of America Online’s Hometown Web site building site late in the fall of 2008 offers a worrying picture of what lies ahead for Yahoo.
All the content that AOL users created is gone now, and all the pages now redirect to a blog post notifying users that AOL Hometown has been deleted. The announcement is followed by a long trail of comments that grow increasingly desperate. One woman writes, “Is there any way still to retrieve my [journals] and homepages? I tried before the deadline but nothing happened. These are my memories. Things I wanted to remember about my kids. And when I tried to access them before the deadline I was unable to. Otherwise I would have printed it all out. Please help.” The panic that AOL’s customers felt resonates with me, as a college-aged student who keeps moving more and more of my life online. Sure, I hang onto photo albums, but only on Facebook. My idea of backing up an important paper is uploading it to Google Docs. And when I see a newspaper article I know I’ll need, I don’t clip it; I bookmark it. If any of the services I use abandon me the way
Hometown users were abandoned by AOL, I’ll lose a lot of data that means a lot to me.
Information is property, and, in an increasingly digitalized world, information is fast becoming the most common and valuable form of property. This kind of cyber property should be subject to some of the same protections we expect for tangible pieces of property. Property owners should be guaranteed time and assistance to retrieve their materials, even if the hosting company collapses.
Jason Scott, a blogger and Inter- net archivist, hopes that this legal lacuna will be addressed by Congress, as he believes that AOL’s actions were tantamount to illegal evictions. Although he argues for legal protections, he has set up a stopgap measure to protect consumers from what he terms “the Datapocalypse.” Scott has founded an organization of vigilante archivists — “The A-Team” — who are committed to preserving online data in the face of information collapse.
It would be fortunate if the challenges of the Web 2.0 revolution could be addressed solely with the methods of Scott and his Archivist Avengers, but, at least for now, vigilantism is not a reliable long-term storage system when the stakes are so high.
To ask the federal government to take on the responsibility of guaranteeing the safety of our data is unrealistic. However, the law can set expectations and protocols for sites that fail. Companies should be expected to maintain databases for a length of time that could reasonably allow users to be notified and to retrieve their data (about four months).
We already require companies to include dissolution clauses in their charters and their con- tracts. The logical next step is to force companies to give the same amount of thoughts to their digital assets as to their physical ones. We must change the culture and expectations associated with online media, to make sure that our creations and our content are not as transient as the latest dotcom fad.
Leah Antony Libresco is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College.