When a cloud service vanishes: How to protect your data

Nothing lasts forever, and that includes online services. We look at some dangers in trusting your data to the cloud, and how to prevent problems.

More and more, we rely on Web services as a matter of course. The key word is rely: We assume that the data we upload to, say, a photo-hosting account or blog service today will still be there tomorrow. In large part, that's because we assume the services themselves will still be there tomorrow.

But over the past few years, we've seen plenty of examples of sites that are here today and all-too-gone tomorrow -- for example, Friendster (which dumped user data for a redesign in May) and GeoCities (which shut down in 2009).

In other words, nothing lasts forever. The Web services that we entrust with our data can -- and do -- vanish. And when that happens, you need to have a plan. In the following pages, I'll take a look at some cases where user data was lost or endangered, how the companies (and their users) handled the situation, and what you can do to keep your own information safe.

Don't let this happen to you

Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples of services that have shut down, changed hands or simply lost their data.

MySpace. The slow death and muddled rebirth of MySpace -- once a fiercely popular social network, overshadowed by the rise of Facebook -- raised a lot of questions about what would happen to existing users' data and whether or not there would be an easy way to bulk-export any of that information.

MySpace did set up what has been described as a "data-portability initiative" back in 2008. But this seemed not so much for the sake of exporting data from MySpace as allowing consistently reused contact information to be automatically filled in across sites. Worse, the terms of service for MySpace developers explicitly forbids creating applications designed to export user data to another service. That hasn't stopped people from creating scrape tools for MySpace such as Make Data Make Sense's blog-export utility.

Google Videos. After Google's acquisition of YouTube in 2006, Google Video seemed as redundant as a second navel. By 2009, the ability to upload new videos was shut down, although concerted protest by users kept Google from shutting the service off entirely so that any videos still there could be archived manually. Those who had spent money on Google Videos' download-to-own/-rent program found access to their purchased content gone, although those with outstanding credit in the system could have that transferred as funds to Google Checkout. (Later, Google announced it would also offer credit card refunds; in April 2011, it announced that it was keeping Google Video content up indefinitely, until all the remaining videos could be moved to YouTube.) As with some other closed Web services, the issue wasn't just the content but the existing user investment in the site, in multiple senses of the word "investment."

Sidekick. Back in October 2009, around 800,000 T-Mobile users who owned the Sidekick phone were in for a rude shock when the servers holding their personal data -- including email and contact information -- went down. It was originally reported that the data was lost for good, although the majority of the data was later restored. Not that it made for any less of a black eye for T-Mobile and Microsoft (which were managing the servers that kept the Sidekick data). Worse, users had no short-term recourse for recovery other than whatever data might have been synced to their computers.

The data service for Sidekick was discontinued for good on May 31, 2011. According to a statement by Microsoft, T-Mobile provided "an enhanced Web tool ... on myT-Mobile.com to easily export their personal data, including contacts, photos, calendar, notes, to-do lists, and bookmarks, from the Danger service to a new device, computer, or a designated e-mail account." If they had provided something so convenient during the earlier data outage, or as a routine way to allow Sidekick users to keep their data intact, the wailing and gnashing of teeth might not have been as loud.

Blogging and Web-hosting services. With blogging and free websites now throwaway commodity offerings, it's not surprising when these services bite the dust. GeoCities, an artifact of the Web's earliest commercial days, was widely lamented when its plug was pulled in 2009. Yahoo did little on its own to preserve the sites, but there were third-party efforts to save the contents of Geocities. Also, Windows Live Spaces was shut down in March 2011, ai which time users were given the option to migrate to WordPress. And as of May 24 this year, Yahoo's MyBlogLog was also canned; there are, however, tutorials on how to migrate your data from it.

Lala.com. For the users of Lala.com, the problem was a little more complex. The short-lived online music service, which allowed users to cheaply purchase streaming access to music, was bought out by Apple in December 2009. Users who had existing credit with the service were allowed to transfer those credits to iTunes, but any purchased streams were gone for good. No provision existed for, say, allowing legal MP3 downloads of the purchased streams. (Blame the thicket of restrictive licensing agreements that automatically spring up around any online media service and the fact that music isn't really "purchased" online but merely licensed.)

The fate of Lala brings up an interesting question. Given how many media services are offering "rental" rather than "purchase" models for their offerings, at what point will people feel an entitlement to that data as theirs? And given the voracity with which companies can gobble each other up, how willing should people be to pay money for access to something that could dry up overnight?

These are not questions that have set answers, since they deal with conceptual changes in the nature of the services people consume, and are heavily affected by the reputation of the company in question. For example, few people expect Amazon to go out of business anytime soon, so there's not the same hesitancy about buying books on the Kindle as there would be about streaming music from a fresh young startup.

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