Steve Wozniak recently lost his calendar. Mat Honan saw his iCloud security breached and his entire digital life obliterated. In the cloud, when something goes wrong, you are screwed. There are no rules to stop it, no protections in place. There’s no responsibility.
Companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft or Dropbox change features at whim and disable services without really caring about the user. Your photostream, your calendars, your reminders, your documents, your home movies — they are at their mercy or at the mercy of market forces.
And yet we’re all flying to the cloud because it’s so convenient. This has to change, because things can get a lot worse, as legendary developer Dave Winer tells from his own experience in this article.
A few weeks ago I openly asked Fred Wilson a serious question that’s been on my mind ever since I started writing on the net and encouraging others to.
What happens to all this stuff when the servers disappear?
It’s a fair question to ask anyone involved in techonology for two reasons:
1. They might know the answer.
2. If they’re aware of the problem we all might find an answer working together.
But if we never talk about it, one day I fear we’ll wake up to find it’s all gone. And we never do talk about it. Yet someday it will be the big topic. I’m sure of it, because I’ve lived it.
In 2003, after having heart surgery and leaving UserLand to try to rescue what was left of my life, I was caught in a tough spot, having to run a big dynamic blog hosting website on one of my servers. This was a “gift” from the people who were running the company. I don’t know what led them to do this at the time, but there I was holding the bag, and when the flow hit my server it crashed. Every time I tried to bring it back up, it crashed again. Having been responsible for managing this site a year before, when the stress was one of the factors that put me on the operating table, I understood what I was looking at. I could buy more servers, and you know what — the site would still crash. So I put up a static page that said I was going to do the best to get people their data, but that the server was gone.
The shitstorm that came from that was epic. I don’t think that’s too strong a term. I think I understood what it looked like from their point of view. One day they go to look at their blog and it’s gone. The server doesn’t respond. Connection refused. They come back an hour later and all they see is a message saying they might get their data at some point.
People feel very personal about this stuff. One person wrote that I had murdered their blogs. This idea caught on. Now I was a murderer. It was just me. Not a company. They either didn’t know or forgot what I had gone through. I didn’t forget. You can’t forget something like that. But it didn’t happen to them, so it didn’t happen.
I don’t think there’s any moral conclusion to this, other than there are a lot of points of view of an event like this. From my own view, I knew that only a handful of the sites had been updated in the last year. So I believed that a lot of the rage was fake. We had also made their sites available for download almost from the start, and told the users about it, repeatedly — but almost no one took advantage of it. So the people who were enraged were at least partly responsible for the problem. Also, as an engineer I never promise certainty. I know about Murphy’s Law. So when I said we might be able to get them backup copies of their sites, I felt certain that I could get most of them, if not all. But the one person whose site could not be restored would want to hold me to the promise, so I hedged it. In the end everyone got their sites, if I remember correctly.
Back then all this was much smaller. There were far fewer bloggers. Maybe thousands. Today there are millions. None of them are thinking about what happens when Tumblr or Blogger or WordPress or Facebook disappear. But come on — we almost know for certain that one of them will. Given enough time they will all disappear. Doesn’t it make sense to think, in advance about what will happen then? Technically there are good practices that exist right now, that could ameliorate the problems. Don’t we have a responsibility to implement them?
Which gets me to the beginning. Yesterday I wrote a piece where I said that the web is socialist. I strongly believe if you try to turn a community of bloggers into a property, someday you’ll wake up to the realisation that you bought a bag of air. There’s nothing inside the walls that’s worth anything, from a dollar standpoint. What happens then dear blogger? Do you think anyone is going to subsidise the hosting? You will be on your own that day. And you very likely won’t have any recourse, any more than my users had in 2003. I promise you I was well-intentioned, but that didn’t save the sites. Good intentions are no answer. Saying they’re not your users won’t help either. In 2003 they weren’t mine because I was no longer employed by the company. No salary. No upside. Nothing. I quit for a very good reason. So why me? It was basically an accident that the hits were coming to my server. That didn’t matter to the users. Were they right? Hard to say. But it didn’t matter.
In a way I’m writing this to encourage everyone who’s profiting from this stuff now to set aside some of the money to help the users in what is sure to come. But also to the users to wise up and also to stop being such children. If you feel there’s value in your writing, then treat it like it has value. If you depend on strangers to pay your rent, you have to know that isn’t going to work, long-term.
Dave Winer, 56, is a software developer and editor of the Scripting News weblog. He pioneered the development of weblogs, syndication (RSS), podcasting, outlining and web content management software; former contributing editor at Wired Magazine, research fellow at Harvard Law School and NYU, entrepreneur, and investor in web media companies. A native New Yorker, he received a Master’s in Computer Science from the University of Wisconsin, a Bachelor’s in Mathematics from Tulane University and currently lives in New York City.