Anti-Lock In Law for web apps?

A

The more web apps we use, and the better they are, the more we trust them with our data. Apart from all privacy issues: Lock-in is becoming more and more of a problem. What happens to your pictures (and the way you sorted them) when you cancel your flickr account? What about Gmail, Google Calendar and the rest of the Google empire, or project management tools like Basecamp and the like. The same applies to the dozens of web 2.0 apps you’ve signed up for in the last year or so. And don’t even get me started on iTunes.

Some of them do have import and export features, and in the case of Gmail for example, you could just pop or forward your mail to a different account. But let’s just go through with the example of iTunes: Whatever you “buy” (which you don’t, technically, it’s more like being granted access to a song in a very limited way by the evil iTunes god or something) will be lost if you decide to leave, or if you happen to switch to a different mp3 player. So if you bought $100 worth of music and decide to switch to a different player for, say $120, the real switching cost is $220: $120 for the player, plus $100 in lost music.

The idea behind is, of course, that once you’ve invested a certain amount of money, time or data, it’ll be to much of a pain to switch to a different brand: Lock-in, here we go.

So what to do about it? Either you could the end user license agreement (EULA) for every single service you use, which is virtually impossible, plus you’d have to miss out on most services. (For more on EULAs check out Cory Doctorow’s posts here and here, Freedom to Tinker here, and a completely different new approach here.) Or you go the open source way, but quite often that can be quite a pain, too, both in terms of compatibility and usability.

I’d like to propose a law, or at least a code of conduct, which requires all web apps to guarantee a clean exit for all the data you bought or trusted them with.

At any point during the use of a service or app, the user should be able to export all said data in a non-proprietary format. This goes in particular for the moment when you decide to leave the service: At that point, all the data should be provided to download, or maybe even shipped on a DVD.

That way, you could try out a service any way you want, and leave any time, no risk of losing anything important: Consumers win. On the other hand, companies win, too: If you don’t face any risk of losing your stuff, signing up for that new calendar app will appear much less threatening, more customers will sign up.

This Anti-LocK In Law would provide for consumer mobility, and with mobile consumers comes the competition that fosters innovation. Also, any company that trusts their own services won’t try to force their customers to stay against their will. (In the case of a code of conduct, a kind of quality seal might have a similar effect.)

What do you think?

About the author

Peter Bihr
By Peter Bihr