App.net commits to data portability as a brand promise

App.net, the we’re-supported-by-our-users-not-by-advertisers twitter alternative, promises data portability to its uses. Let’s look at their core values.

  • We are selling our product, NOT our users.

    We will never sell your personal data, content, feed, interests, clicks, or anything else to advertisers. We promise.

On the one hand, no selling your explicit, inferred or behavioral data to advertisers. Excellent clarity.

On the other, this promise is limited to sales to advertisers. Others will gladly pay for your data: aggregators who assemble and resell rich personal profiles from diverse sources; insurance companies to better characterize their risks; employers scanning prospective and current employee attitudes; law enforcement and intelligence agencies analyzing large bodies of text. Is App.net promising not to sell to all third-parties or just to advertisers?

On the other hand (the third hand, I know) what if a user wants to sell their data? Are you ruling out being an infomediary, acting on behalf of users willing to license their history and activity to trusted third-parties? If you just want to be a custodian of user data, will you forbid API partners from selling user data originating on App.net if users consent?

  • You own your content.

    App.net members will always have full control of their data. Members have the fundamental right to easily back-up, export, and delete ALL of their data, whenever they want.

The human language is “ownership,” but the legally binding one is “control.”

So far App.net is modeling an early export of your data.

When they hit $500K in revenue, about 10K paying users, Dalton Caldwell blogged:

When you are logged into the App.net alpha, we provide a button which will email you a .zip file of all of your content in a structured format. If you are an alpha tester, go ahead and try it out. It works.

Export to a file is a great start. I’m eager to see docs showing the data structure and a list of other services that readily parse that structure.

I’m also eager to see more useful data portability controls:

  • Consume my data from other sources with open arms, both one shot and updates. There are thousands of services supporting feeds, activity streams, directories, etc.
  • Flipping that around, App.net should also push my my App.net life updates to other services.
  • Disclosure on where in the physical world my App.net data is kept and flows. Maybe even choice of where. This matters when servers are subject to national court, law enforcement, and intelligence orders and to government censorship regimes.
  • Effective due process regarding App.net choosing to disable or kill my account. It’s your business and you have the power to shut down any user or developer. How will you assure eviction is fair and seen as fair?
  • Controlling how my identity is presented to different publics within App.net. Is it “one account, one persona” or can I use one account to interact with my work, family, geek, cosplay, or political publics in ways I can tailor for each? We use faceted identity in the real world and need you to model it.
  • Discussion of who “owns” what in co-created content. Will you permit deletions to leave holes in a threaded conversation? Will you let me delete a photo I post and then delete it from other’s accounts even if others reshared it?
  • We will align our financial incentives with members & developers.

    In this paid model, the more people that value our service highly enough to pay for it, the more money we make. Our financial incentives are entirely tied to successfully delivering a service you can depend on, not on holding our ecosystem hostage.

Shoplifting is driven by value, opportunity, and perceived risk. So is having a service abuse user trust. Aligning financial incentives is a strong step to backing up data portability promises.

  • App.net employees spend 100% of their time improving our services for you, not advertisers.

    Rather than waste most of our engineering time coming up with new and exciting ways to sell your personal data to advertisers, 100% of our engineering and product team will be focused on building the most innovative and reliable service we can.

This is about return on membership fees more than data portability. Still nice, though.

  • We will operate a sustainable, predictable business.

    App.net will always have a clear business model. We know that depending on services that could go away or desperately squeeze users for more and more money is a toxic cycle.
    We want our ecosystem to rest easy that App.net is built on a financially solid foundation.

Oceans of personal data are lost as companies kill products, turn off servers, or shut down their businesses. Business viability directly supports user-centric data portability. Other things can go wrong but at least there should be cash to pay for a graceful exit if things go badly.

  • We respect and value our developer community.

    We believe that developers building on our platform are increasing the value and attractiveness of our service to paying members, and thus our financial interests are fundamentally aligned. We hope developers build large, robust businesses on top of our platform. Even if it means that we will likely forgo some huge future revenue streams, we will NEVER screw developers acting in good faith.

This is a path of potential conflict: App.net’s promises to users vs. developers.

Will App.net build its personal data portability pledges into developer API terms of service? How strongly will those commitments be communicated? How will they be validated and abuses reported? What sanctions are set for abusers? What forms of redress will App.net enable for users? It’s easier to have these conversations in alpha.

  • Our most valuable asset is your trust.

    Many people have become so cynical about user-hostile, privacy-violating social services that they refuse to participate at all. We can understand why. Earning your trust is the most important thing we can do. It won’t be easy, and we will make some mistakes, but we will do our best to be honest and transparent.

Trust, but verify.

These are bold values to hold. Eager to see what they look like in your user and developer Terms of Service. Congrats on your launch.

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