On Thursday, secure email provider Silent Circle announced it had preemptively destroyed its servers in order to avoid potential government requests to turn over data. It was likely unwelcome news for customers, who can no longer access anything that had been stored there.
While Silent Circle is an extreme case, the question of ownership is an increasingly important one. For business owners and entrepreneurs who create content or collect customer data, the question is: who really owns it? And if you aren't the one hosting the information, are you getting enough value in return?
You may think the content you post to sites like Medium or Facebook remains yours--and that's true, in the sense that it's your intellectual property.
But both sites, in their Terms of Service, establish a "non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, sublicensable, transferable license" to use your work however they want. Medium's license is in perpetuity, while Facebook's ends when you delete your account or the content--unless someone else has shared it, that is. You may retain the copyright, but you're no longer in control.
Recently, Marco Arment, the creator of Instapaper, cautioned writers about Medium, a relatively new blogging platform from the founders of Twitter. Arment tweeted, "Writers: You don’t need Medium. You can host your own blog on your own domain with lots of other tools and hosts."
Glen Fleishman, editor and publisher of The Magazine, agreed, pointing out that although he'd personally had positive experiences writing on Medium, at the end of the day, "it's not mine. It's theirs."
According to Fleishman, powerlessness is one of his chief concerns: "I can't control the URL. I can't embed. I have no idea about what their ultimate plans are... My words' persistence, both in appearance and permanent location, are dependent on factors beyond my control."
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
The other issue with relying on other content platforms is that, like Silent Circle, they can shut down whenever they want. Twitter, for example, disclaims all responsibility for "the deletion of, or the failure to store or to transmit, any Content." Medium reserves the right to "terminate or restrict access to it at any time, in our sole discretion."
In a post called "The Problem With Medium" (posted on Medium), writer Andrea Phillips agrees, writing, "If Medium goes away-- like Geocities, Bloggers.com, Posterous and countless other start-ups lo these twenty years gone by--your digital footprint will be gone, too. Poof."
Digital strategist (and Inc. contributor) Hollis Thomases learned this lesson the hard way when she lost all of her Posterous content after the site was bought by Twitter. She says, "To me it's not a 'control' thing, so much as an ownership thing."
Thomases adds that this applies to follower and subscriber data on sites like Facebook as well. She gives the example of the U.S. Humane Society. Their primary goal on Facebook is getting hold of email addresses so that "just in case Facebook ever goes away, they do not lose all that valuable time they invested in building their base."
But What About the Clicks?
There's one very compelling counterargument: visibility. The number of followers or viewers that you can attract on Facebook or Twitter might be greater than you could ever get without them. Similarly, the difference in traffic between a personal or small business site and a reputable media platform can be enormous.
According to "Meet the Media" host Brittany Bailey, "In a writer's or entrepreneur's world, especially if they are not backed by investors or lack capital to spend on advertising, exposure is everything." She says that as long as the site has credibility and viewership, giving them free content can allow "others to see your expertise and start to trust you as a leader in your field."
If you do decide that there's value in using someone else's platform, just make sure that it's a reputable site that won't just disappear, know the terms of service--and hang onto copies of your content and any follower data you can get.
After her experience with Posterous, that's one mistake Thomases won't make again. She advises, at the very least, "make back-up copies of your posts."