Towards Data Sovereignty

Data Sovereignty?!?As our lives extend into the digital realm, personal sovereignty becomes a question of more than just our minds and bodies.

It becomes a question of data and the web, and a question of how to control it.

Considering the current Google+ hype, I would like to start a discussion about self-ownership and personal sovereignty in the age of the digital self.

Of course, most web evangelists (and especially the marketers among them!) are happy to see a new social network emerging. I agree with them in so far as having a decent competitor to Facebook isn’t a bad thing. I have my doubts about what we should actually do with these networks, though: If we use them solely for marketing, they are boring. But if we use them to post all our thoughts and digital creations, they might turn out to be perilous.

Why? Because they reduce our sovereignty by taking over our data! Because the stuff we post on Google+ and Facebook and Twitter might end up not being our stuff anymore. To a certain degree, it becomes the stuff of corporate blogging silos.

Why Should You Care?

If you’re okay with sharing your personal interests and preferences with any advertiser who’s willing to pay, you will probably care less than those of us who aren’t.1

If you’re also okay with being vulnerable to ‘broad and wide’ hacking attacks and security issues, there’s probably even less reason to care. For example, all (!) Dropbox accounts were open to anybody who entered any (!) password during several hours, after a programming change introduced a bug into their software back in June. Good for you if you encrypt your data on your own computer rather than on the Dropbox servers.2

Stay with me, though: Even if you don’t care about advertising and hackers, there’s still another thing to consider:

Do you want to be able to take your data with you once ________ (Enter your favorite web company here) ceases to exist (or simply ceases to interest you)? If so, can you?

Depending on the company and application, this may be easier, harder, or totally impossible!

It’s certainly something to consider: Even huge companies can crash – giants like Google and Facebook included! So you might want to make sure your data is yours to take along.3

A Question of Sovereignty

Corporate blogging silos are not necessarily evil just because they are corporate. They just aren’t under your control.

If you’re not in control, you’re not the sovereign. And if you’re not the sovereign, someone else is.

Consider this:

Here is your data.
And there is some corporation – good or evil, big or small, cool or lame – who thinks it owns it.
And, maybe, there’s someone else: A government interested to take a sneak peek.

Dave Winer writes:

We’ll do much better if there are a million personal blogging silos instead of one or two huge corporate blogging silos. The corporate ones are too easy for governments to control without the people knowing they’re being controlled.

True words: Facebook may just hand your data over to the government if someone requests it. If you have your own server, though, broad access becomes much more difficult, because they have to deal with every single user individually.

Do you remember when Amazon remotely erased a couple of Orwell books from the Kindles of their clients – just because they were worried about some copyright bullshit?

These days, cloud computing is getting bigger and bigger. What if suddenly all of your music is gone, just because some robot found a pirated album in your MP3 collection? Or, worse, all your documents get deleted? Just because Steve Jobs decides to wipe your iCloud, faster than you can say “Boom“?

Sure, this might seem like a crazy dystopia – but I’m afraid it’s not.
I’m not saying this will happen – but it certainly could. I simply like to be in control, and I like to be prepared.

How to Own Your Data: 3 Modest Proposals

Here are three first steps every internet user can take to maintain her data under control.

1. Own Your Mails

Do you really want a Gmail address? Like, forever? If you think Google is cool and fast and convenient, and it always will be, just think about what happened to Yahoo, or how outdated AOL addresses look nowadays.

Here’s a simple solution:

  1. Register a domain. (Cost: $10 per year or so)
  2. Get a hosting plan. (Cost: Depends. $10 a month will certainly do the job, but if you only care about mail, there are cheaper options.)
  3. Create an address that is under your control and will be yours for as long as you want.

The good thing about this set-up is that you can always switch providers and the hosting later, while still maintaining the same address. If Gmail gets closed one day, in contrast, it’ll be gone for good.

As for recommended companies, I am a customer of Macbay and Dreamhost. They both do a decent job, and they allow me to create as many email addresses for my domains as I want. They even provide practically unlimited storage. Plus, I can download all my mails to my own computer, while still being able to access them through their respective web interfaces.

If the server rooms of these companies burn down tomorrow, I’ll have my mails right here on my computer.

If my computer dies, I’ll have my mails on their servers.

And for the improbable case that my computer dies while their server rooms burn down, I’ll still have my personal backups.

((You might also want to consider signing up with a paid mail provider like Fastmail. Marco Arment did that, and he seems to be quite happy. I bet he gets more mail than you and me and our mums together.))

2. Own Your Creations

Do you publish anything online? If so, do you publish your stuff exclusively on Facebook, Flickr, Google+ or Twitter?

Then please consider getting a “real” blog. You don’t necessarily have to host it on your own.4

Even if you just sign up on WordPress.com, you still have more control than in most of these social networks: You can download your stuff and use it as you please. You can import, export, reimport, design, redesign everything, according to your taste. You can publish whatever you want, and you maintain all your rights. If you want, you can take your creations to another provider or platform, delete them, or even print them to make them part of your 10-volume autobiography. Cool stuff.

3. Own Your Bookmarks

Most popular bookmarking sites let you export your data. One that goes a step further is Pinboard: If you pay a small fee, it will archive all sites you ever bookmark, including images, PDFs and other elements – and it also allows you to take all that data with you, by downloading it to your computer.

With this service, you basically get a personalized and searchable archive of your entire web history, ready to take along. No more “Sorry, this page doesn’t exist” anymore. If I really start to work on my PhD thesis, this is definitely an upgrade I will get!

What Else?

This article was inspired by this post by Dave Winer.5 Of course, the three steps I propose aren’t a solution for everything or everybody. They are merely a starting point, together with my older thoughts on how to fix the web. When it comes to what else to do, I am as much a dilettante as you might probably be.

If you believe data sovereignty matters, though, please share your thoughts, ideas, and questions in the comments, and I’ll be happy to follow up on this!

  1. Here’s how this whole market might get centralized. A German Google spokesperson is suggesting there will be one all-embracing opt-out, what certainly would be a nice thing. []
  2. Of course, hacks and security issues are very real for any cautious end user, too. Plus, it’s harder for an individual to keep up with security issues than it is for a professional team. The difference is that your personal server probably won’t become a target of any ‘wide and broad’ hacking attack, as for example the Playstation Network. []
  3. Google offers this in a transparent and also very comfortable way here. Twitter will only let you access your last 3200 tweets through external applications. Facebook, as far as I know, has some kind of “export your data” feature, but apparently it’s not as usable as it should be. In practice, anyway, just exporting your contacts can be harder than expected, because companies of course have an interest to keep you locked in! []
  4. Admittedly, that’s quite a pain in the ass. I mean, it’s great as long as everything works. But once it doesn’t anymore, at least I will be doomed up for a learning experience. []
  5. And by this. And by this by Marco Arment, too. []

Comments 12

  1. Micah Redding July 15, 2011

    Good thoughts. My primary consideration is data portability – how easily will I be able to get my data out? This is why I stopped using Evernote and countless other services, it’s why I still use Dropbox and Simplenote and Gmail.

    Used to, I would have agreed with you on point #1. Gmail is going to become old and crusty at some point. By giving out my Gmail address, I’m investing in something that won’t be around forever.

    This is all true. But I’ve decided that functionality and fluidity is actually my primary concern when it comes to utilities like email. Had I not jumped on the Gmail bandwagon, I wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of threaded messages and virtually unlimited storage, instead being stuck in the conventional email world that everyone else was providing. By not insisting on my own “branded” solution, I was able to enjoy and keep up with my email conversations much better.

    At some point, I’ll want to abandon gmail. At that point, I will export all my messages, tell people my email address has changed, and go on my way. All those places I’ve posted my email out in the world will lose that connection. But that’s probably okay. I’ll probably feel relief at a somewhat fresh start with a new email address, and all the important people in my life will know anyway.

    My focus now is not to hold on to things too tightly. If I can take my data and go, that’s all I really need. The future is ever-changing, and I want to be fluid.

    • Fabian July 16, 2011

      Hey Micah, thanks for your long and insightful comment! I agree with you on the importance of data portability. I am currently creating a plaintext setup for all my files on my computer, leaving behind apps like Evernote and DevonThink, too. I’ll probably write about that once it’s all up and running.

      Did you know that it’s able to set it up using your own domain by activating Google Gears? It’s free and simple to configure, so you might want to give it a try.

      That said, I’m somehow still reluctant to store all my mails with Google, so I just use my own (virtual) server and keep them in sync through IMAP. Storage really isn’t an issue anymore (space is free with ads, or cheap without, so I opt for the latter), and I can live with the design of Mail.app, even though it has its flaws. The only thing I’m missing now is a great web interface, but as I generally use my own computer to access mail, that’s just fine.

    • Rafal November 21, 2012

      Excellent post Fabian,
      Dropbox and plain text is powerful combination I went through a phase of relying on it but in the end decided to go with Evernote.
      I agree with all the arguments for plain text like the portability, being future proof and light. However….
      – more and more information is created in rich text formats like HTML or PDF which makes reading it in plain text difficult.
      – Evernote is provides excellent capture tools both on laptop and mobile.
      – the more information you store in Evernote the more reliable it becomes and the easier it is to discover saved data.
      – single place for storing information removes a lot of complexity where is my stuff i.e. where are my pdf, where are my notes, web clipping etc.
      – Evernote provides good ways of exporting all your data including the pdf documents. Should you want to move it’s not impossible nor difficult.

      As additional safeguard I also keep backups of my Evernote databases so should something happen I can always recover my stuff and move somewhere else.
      I think Evernote provides good balance between portability/data ownership and convenience (capture/storage). Obviously these are personal choices.

      • Fabian November 21, 2012

        Evernote definitely have created an interesting offer, Rafal. I used it some time ago and hated the client, but with the new version it looks as if it finally got a decent (Mac) software. If they’d really let me own (incl. host) my data, I might be very tempted to give them another try. Unfortunately, this is something that we are losing in the cloud, and it’s both to our benefit *and* to our risk. So for now, I’m fine with my .txt setup – personal choice, as you say! ;)

        One more thing: HTML is close enough to plain text with its basic formatting. Still readable. Markdown is even better and gives us the best of both worlds. As for PDFs and other proprietary formats: This is precisely what I’m arguing against. You say that “more and more information is created” in those formats, but who creates them? We do! So when I was asked to hand in my notes from a recent presentation I have, I didn’t hand in a PDF or a DOC or even a PPT. They got my text notes. It’s up to us what we create. :)

  2. Christine July 17, 2011

    A very informative article Fabian, just learnt quite a few new things from your post again. Looks like you are going to Berlin soon according to your trip planner. I love Berlin, last year alone I travelled there for 3 times. :-)

    • Fabian July 20, 2011

      Thank you, Christine! :)
      Actually, I was in Berlin already. Spent the month of June there. Maybe I should adjust the visualization of the planner so this becomes clearer!
      Will you be going back to the city this year? I had a great time and will certainly spend more time there!

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  4. Nadya August 16, 2011

    While I do get what your saying (and note: I have a blog, a website, a personal email, a work email, a gmail account, a twitter account and a FB account), I guess it really does depend on how worried you are about that kind of thing. Personally, I don’t mind what people use of mine. Generally, the most annoying thing comes from telemarketers and they get my details from cellular data basis (eek! having a cellphone got me on those lists). I have learned to just say no thank you and have a nice day and then I put down the phone.

    Anyway, what I am trying to say is: I understand what you are saying about data sovereignty, but personally, I am just willing to share whatever I have.

    • Fabian August 18, 2011

      Thanks for commenting, Nadya!
      I think there are more and more people willing to live quite transparently, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Sharing it all can be a wonderful exercise!
      That said, my point with data sovereignty is that I suggest people should be able to decide about this at any point, and also get the ability to take their data with them.
      For example, if Gmail would close one day (who knows?!), it might important for me to download all my stuff before that happens. If a platform doesn’t allow that, it’s like a lock-in, and I wouldn’t be okay with that.

  5. Gary G Stromberger September 17, 2013

    I believe your concept of Sovereign is wrong.

    The Crown is above or on the Head.
    Cash is Queen, Currency is King.

    Your quote implies Crown is in hand.

    Anarchy systems are contained within Sovereign systems, firewalled (better if data ported).
    Maximized wealth (of currency) can be maximally distributed.

    Cash can crash!

    • Fabian September 19, 2013

      Thanks for your comment Gary, but I’m afraid I don’t really get your point. Would you mind to elaborate?

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