Graceful Exit: The Power to Fight Eviction

Online Eviction

Jason Scott’s Protection From Online Eviction? and his follow up post make the argument that services like AOL, MySpace, flickr, or Skype should be treated like landlords.

The power landlords have over tenants is overwhelming, unless restricted by law. The argument: if they want to shut down a service, essentially evicting users, they should be required to give notice and keep things running for a year.

This would allow people to safely migrate their digital objects like photos and videos and blog posts, renew relationships with people in their contacts and agree on where to move, file change of address notices for their businesses, and otherwise minimize the logistical, economic, political, emotional, and familial havoc forcible ejection can create.

Death and Taxes

Should Terms of Service (TOS) defend a user from data loss? from identity nullification? from contact list deletion? from history erasure?

The closure of the Skypecasts service is the example from Skype history that comes to mind. Skype could have given more notice, preserved the site for archival purposes, turned off commenting and new sessions, allowed people to extract contact lists.

Might Skype have designed Skypecasts services with “graceful exit” in mind?

Everything dies. Plants, animals, families, civilizations. Even businesses and web sites.

It’s wise to acknowledge mortality and plan for service end-of-life. And it’s prudent to build societal safeguards outside of company-issued boilerplate.

From a company’s view, it’s like setting aside resources for taxes you know you must pay later. Or contingency funds in a project budget.

Maybe this is green service design. Designing web products for recycling and reuse.

It was time for Skypecasts 1.0 to die. What was the right way for Skype to retire the service? How could they have preserved user equity in data and the social capital created through use of the Skypecasts services?

What is the moral thing to do?

The question is broader than the one product.

It goes to the tension between consumer rights, enterprise service rights, and the health of our society. For example, if a province decides to demolish your building, you have many rights under law to contest that decision. In the US, many cities have laws about protecting historic landmark buildings.

In my case, as a user of Google mail, I have no power over Google. If they decide to cancel my account, delete my email or spam all my contacts, that’s within their power. They don’t need to give notice, or offer me a chance to back everything up. Nobody outside Google will hear my appeal or listen to my concerns.

Societies, civilization and economies have an interest in protecting and preserving the intellectual work of individuals. Even family photos, business blogs, and the most idiotic of forums have value. Value to their creators, value as history, value even as part of the creative commons.


So what can be done to redress this imbalance of power? I’ll suggest six things, by no means a complete or even feasible list.

First, intervene. is a rapid response team. They will respond to a pending shutdown by backing up as much as they can. They are a volunteer team but just starting. I can easily imagine this being a not-for-profit or a government agency.

Second, prevent. Promote exit strategies in project and product design. This is an education program for product managers. Knowledge about the issues, checklists for planning and conducting a graceful exit, forums for getting help, directories of certified Graceful Exit professionals.

Third, commit. Write model language for EULAs and TOSs. After a company implements preventive measures, give them the language for making promises legally. Plain language, lawyer approved. Even a badge to show at registration to give that safe, comfortable feeling.

Fourth, insure. Create a mutual insurance fund. Put money into a pool to pay for recovery and distribution of digital assets if you should shut down a service. Coverage is proportional to the number of clients and the size of their assets. Risk factors include the health and activity of your business, how well you’ve engineered preventive measures (discounts for readiness). Money may be paid to outfits like Insurance spreads risk, but proper tweaking of rates can incent better behavior; fire insurance led to fire codes (prevention) and fire departments (remediation).

Fifth, advocate. The cause needs a forceful voice for consumers. When companies, large or small, threaten to willfully destroy their customer’s digital works, they should be educated, persuaded, and publically shamed as needed. I’m thinking some cross between Electronic Frontier Foundation and Consumers Union.

Sixth, enforce. Teeth, if you will. I want laws that enshrine cherished principles and adapt to changing times and fluid technologies. Injunctive relief is a powerful incentive to do the right thing. Class actions in the public interest might convince the reluctant to do the right thing.

P.S. Dave Winer was the first person to bring this to my attention as an issue, eight or nine years’ ago. His response was to create a specification to hold your structured data from his manila blogging services and features that let you backup your blog in one step.  Thanks, Dave.

P.P.S. While I’m on’s steering group, these are my words and may, or may not, be the official view of The DataPortability Project.

5 comments to Graceful Exit: The Power to Fight Eviction

  • Steve Repetti

    The dilemma, of course, is the money guys! If hosting were free – nobody would care. But many sites, especially the larger ones, require significant infrastructure that includes server farms, load balancers, content distribution networks ($), not to mention bandwidth and the human support factor.rnrnStill, it’s not THAT expensive and at the very least there should be a “minimum” notification requirement, such as with the labor layoff laws (a governance element particularly relevant at this time). For example, any site with more than “x” number of users would be required to give at least “y” number of days of advance notice. The “x” and “y” would slide depending upon the overall size (impact on the community) of the site.rnrnIn absence of notification requirements individuals, families, small business and others will continue to be hurt. Hopefully this can be agreed upon and resolved amicably before the pain spreads too far.rnrn

  • Graeme Hunter

    I’ve just hit this very problem today. I use Google Notebook for a lot of things, and I’ve just found out that they’re not going to develop it any further, and it may well shut down completely in time. Have had to find an alternative, and there isn’t a graceful way to move. Been doing a lot of cut and pasting today. nnNew services could make themselves more attractive by recognising the need for portability in future. It would be including the insurance as part of the service.

  • [...] Wolff has a great post about on his DataPortability Blog about The Power to Fight Eviction. He’s talking about what happens when a service that you’ve been using–and have data [...]

  • [...] Eviction (on Digital ID Coach) a couple of weeks ago citing Phil Wolff’s Data Portability article that’s timely and relevant to this post about having growing pains in cloud computing. [...]

  • [...] discussed Graceful Exit, the ability for people to control their departure from a site or [...]