Startups and web companies of the world, we need to talk about data: all those posts and comments and photos and everything else we contribute to your sites, enter into your apps, and keep on your servers.

Our stuff—and the traffic it attracts—is at the core of many of your business models. But when we post our photos, comment on friends’ walls, annotate the books we’re reading, pin LOLcats, check into cafés, and review restaurants, we are doing more than using your services and giving you those precious hits. We’re trusting you with all our minutes and hours and days.

We’re giving you our attention and our time, and both of those are finite.

Bad for the Web, Bad for Your Business

The products and services you make often simplify and enrich our lives, and some of you will keep our work safe for years. But more of you will be acquired or split up or abandoned or changed beyond recognition. Mostly, that will be good for you, the makers. But often, it also means that everything we’ve trusted you to keep is deleted, frequently with insufficient notice to save it.

We’ve seen this happen again and again. It makes us mistrust you, and makes a whole crowd of loud, early adopters wary of startups that solicit our time. If you make things on the internet, that’s bad for your business.

But this is fixable. By establishing a set of simple, explicit industry norms for handling user-contributed data, you—webmakers and app developers of the world—can win back user trust and enthusiasm, and contribute to a more stable digital future.

To those ends, we propose three simple guidelines.

The Guidelines

  1. Treat our data like it matters. Keep it secure and protect our privacy, of course—but also maintain serious backups and respect our choice to delete any information we’ve contributed.
  2. No upload without download. Build in export capabilities from day one.
  3. If you close a system, support data rescue. Provide one financial quarter’s notice between announcing the shutdown and destroying any user-contributed content, public or private, and offer data export during this period. And beyond that three months? Make user-contributed content available for media-cost purchase for one year after shutdown.

Web Users: Demand Better

We’ve had plenty of examples: Geocities, Delicious, Gowalla, Etherpad. Every time a website or online service reboots or shuts down and takes user-contributed content with it, we—all of us collected under the label of “users”—risk losing the time and effort we poured into it.

We’ll only get the data protection our work deserves if we ask for it politely, clearly, and relentlessly. The above is a starting point for doing precisely that. Before you commit to another new service, perhaps you’d like to share the above guidelines with its makers and note their response?

Contents Special Reports

In the tradition of the unsigned editorial, the staff of Contents will issue something less like an article and more like a statement of policy. “Data Protection” is the first of these special reports. We are indebted to Mandy Brown, Jeremy Keith, Cameron Koczon, and an anonymous archivist for their comments and ideas, which are central to this report.