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emma persky

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Micropayments for Web Services

August 3rd, 2008 · 2 Comments · Disaster, Musings

Yesterday was the Big Geek Day Out to Alton Towers, and was, of course, a day full of drama and adventure. I was one of seven people to be accidentally culled from twitter (although now restored, thankfully), disastrous on a day when communication between people whose mobile number you don’t necessarily know is essential. 

This started me thinking about how much we rely on services like Twitter, and how they control access to our data and communications channels. Even though my culling was only accidental, and was restored within 24 hours, whose to say that it won’t be longer next time, or that restoration might not be complete and data might actually be lost, or that it will be accidental. Information stored in my DMs might exist nowhere else and disappear forever. I have information in DMs that exists nowhere else. I would struggle to find even 50% of the people I follow. Many of my followers wouldn’t know how to find me if I was no longer at twitter.com/emmapersky

This problem is not restricted to twitter. Any service which we use of communication or information management is liable to the same problem. Facebook links me to hundreds of people I know, but people whose contact information is only stored there. Friends who I see once a year are do not become detached, they are just a few clicks away.

Is it foolish of me to store all of this information like this? Yes, but do I have a choice? Not really. Facebook’s restrictive information policies do not let me export the email addresses of my contacts (although I could, and probably should, go through them manually). Twitter, on the other hand, allows me to export my friends lists (through the api), but I don’t receive any contact information useful outside of twitter. 

Both Twitter and Facebook have sections in their Terms and Conditions which allow them to terminate user accounts. Yes, when you signup to one of these services you agree that they can delete you from their service, without reason. Twitter’s Terms of Service provides for this in it’s Terms of Service with a simple line

We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone for any reason at any time.

Deep within the Facebook Terms of Use (which is longer than some novels I have read) I found this

The Company may terminate your membership, delete your profile and any content or information that you have posted on the Site or through any Platform Application and/or prohibit you from using or accessing the Service or the Site or any Platform Application (or any portion, aspect or feature of the Service or the Site or any Platform Application) for any reason, or no reason, at any time in its sole discretion, with or without notice

serious stuff. Twitter and Facebook can actually remove anyone from their portion of the internet at any time without reason.

Why is this? Because the contract between us is basically one way. They give us service for free, and thus they are not obligated to do anything more. This notion does not only apply to Twitter and Facebook, but almost any service you use for free on the internet.

In contrast, many real world services have contracts between provider and consumer that are full of conditions explicit on the provider. They must conform to a number of conditions such as informing consumers of changes in the conditions, providing a minimum level of service, etc.

The fundemental difference between these types of services is money. When you pay for a service, the contract between your and the provider is just as stringent on them (otherwise you probably shouldn’t hand over your cash).

I would be certainly strongly consider a small payment to use twitter if it meant that I was entitled to a contract with obligated them to a higher level of service, including not deleting because they felt like it. Is this a viable alternative business model for free service websites outside of the traditional (well, recently traditional) model of displaying advertising to users to generate revenue. Can free services move away from distracting adverts? Can websites really charge for their use? If you ask me, yes then can.

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2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Cristiano Betta // Aug 3, 2008 at 5:39 pm

    The traditional problem with Micropayments is that they work as a detergent when you want people to get hooked up on your service. Post-payment, possibly voluntarily like Tipit.to, can solve some of the issues but as you say still don’t create decent user contracts.

    A more interesting concept is what we discussed during the DataPortability GeekDinner that it would be interesting to have some kind of CC certifications for EULAs which would make it easier to train your family and friends to look for the right things when signing up for a service. If we can somehow turn the masses to demand for certain basic guarantees in DP and other terms of services, we could probably make a big difference in how startups and other companies treat people’s data.

  • 2 Terence Eden // Aug 3, 2008 at 8:19 pm

    There is a serious issue of data ownership. Who owns my personal data? Who owns the data about my *relationships*? If I comment on your photo, does that comment belong to me, you or the service provider? If one of us want to delete that comment - do we have to get the other’s permission?

    Taking a look at our personal and relationship data. One way this could be solved is decentralising the information. Rather than your data being at facebook.com/users/emmapersky - perhaps it should be held at facebook.emmapersky.com.
    Facebook, myspace, linkedin, all “social networks” should be aggregators reading our personal data. They could deliver a database schema, some easily deployable PHP/ASP/JSP and let us host our own social networks. With open and standard APIs, the same db could be used to propogate many social networks.

    The usual argument against this is that Social Networks want you to visit their site and click on their adverts. You want one aggregated place - it might as well be your domain rather than Facebook’s.

    It also means your data is portable. If you grow bored with one network, or if you dislike it, you can move your data and relationships trivially. Capitalism suggests that this would make the market work harder to keep on your good side - *capitalists* think that this would destroy their business model.

    There are several arguments against decentralising.
    Central data storage and processing is very fast and very cheap compared to what an individual can obtain. It’s more efficient for a Facebook to run one big database that have the server at facebook.emmapersky.com run queries against all of its friends.

    Security. How easy would it be for a malicious “friend” to poison your data?

    Ease of use. It would be hard for most people to install and configure a database and sub-domain - if they even have their own domain. Which leads us back to large, central organisations looking after that data…

    Google’s Opensocial is a start. We need to find a way to easily (and regularly) extract our data and relationships from centralised system so that we’re not at their mercy.

    Tools like http://www.zyb.com do a good job at merging contacts from (some) social networks and backing them up on your phone. But it’s still far from perfect.

    Payment from subscribers may well help. At the moment, most social networks rely on advertiser revenue - meaning they serve the advertisers, not you. Of course, as advertisers want large visitor numbers - and visitors only come if they’re happy - that should keep them from screwing you over…

    Paying directly for a social network(if only for a pro version like in flickr’s case) won’t stop mistakes. But it should focus the provider’s minds if they suddenly lose a lot of revenue or get hit with a lot of breach of contract lawsuits.

    Perhaps it will take a serious outage or corruption of data at one of the major Social Networks before people take the issue seriously?

    (Disclaimer, I work for Vodafone - the owners of zyb. I’m speaking in a private capacity. So there.)

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