Websites Holding Your Info Hostage

I want to clarify upfront that all the points found throughout this article are not necessarily aimed at any company specifically. Although, I mention a few examples in part, it’s important to understand that they merely sparked the idea for this article and most of the information found throughout are simply my generalized observations from over the years.

While I strongly respect and believe in free speech, that doesn’t mean that there needs to be a permanent record of every online public discussion that ever took place. There’s less value in that than many would have you believe.

Privacy online these days is more of an issue than ever; this is old news. I’ve written a bit about that here. However, because most young adults today grew up on the internet, they are savvier than ever about privacy, security, and raising legitimate questions. Because of this, data retention policies are more important than ever.

Many companies have come to learn this, perhaps the hard way. Companies like Google and Facebook who have arguably, come under heavier scrutinization than any other companies over privacy concerns. Today, I’m not going to necessarily be talking about the privacy side per se, but being able to control your own data on websites, at least publicly.

Google and Facebook have done a pretty good job at appeasing people with human-readable privacy policies, transparent motives, and “data liberation”. Data Liberation, coined by Google, does just what it sounds like. It liberates you to download your data, import or export it, move it between accounts, and most importantly, it gives you complete control over what you share with the public. Share with just your friends, co-workers, only yourself, or no one. It’s all under your control, no need to ask for permission, help, or argue with a moderator or support staff about your rights to do this, that, or the other with your information.

Some websites (like SitePoint and WordPress), I found recently, still live under some pretty dated and unfriendly policies. I love SitePoint and WordPress and will continue to use them, but that doesn’t mean I have to personally agree with everything they say or do.

I recently posted in both of their support forums as I have often in the past. Sometimes, as we all do, I make a mistake, reveal something business-related (that I only later decide would be best to remove), or otherwise create an erroneous topic or reply and need to have that information edited, updated, or completely deleted.

Since I am the author of this information, under my name, you would assume it would be easy to correct or delete information that I, myself, added. That is most often the case with most websites. Sometimes there’s a limitation on the amount of time you can go back and make an edit, but in most cases you can then just ask support and they’re happy to help you.

However, some websites have different ideas of how to handle your data. After requesting the deletion of a topic from both sites I received an almost identical canned response along the lines of:

As a general rule, we almost never delete information from our website.

I remained polite and professional the whole time as I always do, but to no avail. It was clear they were not going to help me and simply leave the information that I wrote public, regardless of this making me (one of their users) uncomfortable, in favor of “policy”.

Besides such a rule being archaic, it’s quite simply unethical and impolite. I could understand perhaps if you simply disagreed with something someone else wrote and were trying to censor them, that your request would be denied, but to deny the deletion of information you added, is just plain bizarre and alienating to one’s own user-base.

Now, there’s probably something in the fine print about them reserving the right to do this, but again, there’s no good reason to do this, fine print or not. But, then again, legally speaking, they would have to own whatever data you submit in order to control it, but most websites do everything in their power to show that they are not responsible for user-submitted data, so that they’re not liable for it, so…

But, I’m not going to read these websites’ policies top to bottom and open up the law books to see if what they’re doing is even legal to begin with, because it’s simply wrong and that’s all that matters here. Why would websites want to hold their users’ data hostage? A semi-legitimate claim might be that it keeps the website’s knowledge rich with information, that it may help others, but is only true on rare occasion.

Why? Because, besides the fact that there is already limitless information available on these websites already, if someone wants to delete one of their own topics, it’s probably for a good reason and isn’t likely to be rich with useful information or a solution of any sort anyway.

A simple reason, might be just to spend less time moderating from the time it would take to delete topics to instead simply deny the request.

But, the primary reason, I think, with a lot of sites, is money. Words = SEO and SEO = $$$. Why? Because the more content-rich a website is, the higher it’ll rank in search engines, the more traffic will visit it, and ultimately, the more people will click on ads, find affiliated services, or join the website.

Now, although what I’m saying is true, the motive is speculation, speculation built on educated guesses and a lot of experience, but still, speculation. It’s important to realize that I’m generalizing this point and not targeting any specific websites. However, there is one constant in all websites that is absolutely, unarguably, a fact…

A website’s (or any business or service really for that matter) number one dependency for success is its user or customer base. With communities like SitePoint and WordPress, this is especially true.

I run several websites and I never deny a user’s right to control their information. Whether it be changing their username, email address, password, avatar, deleting a topic, or whatever. I either instruct them on a how to do so or I manually accommodate if it’s something I need to do as an admin or mod on the back-end. I never give them the third degree or make things difficult for them.

I’m there to serve and help them and not the other way around. They’re making me money or my service popular and I acknowledge this. To ignore that would be arrogant and ignorant. This is just basic common sense decency because I actually care. However, even if you’re a company that doesn’t care at all and are just looking for your own benefits, this is still marketing 101, treat your users like gold.

However, what I see psychology-wise with a lot of these forum moderators, is the same kind of power trip authority complex mentality you might find with a cop. Although, their duty is to “Protect and Serve“, they tend to forget the serve part. Any good forum moderator knows that it’s not their duty to just protect the forum itself, but the members as well. Of course, some moderators are great and can’t take all the blame, sometimes they just have to follow policy even if they don’t agree.

UPDATE — Found a legitimate reason for data retention. Through my four years of running NameThatMovie, a website based on people finding answers to their movie questions, I often came across reasons to hold onto data, despite the request for its removal by the user who created it.

Mainly, it would be a movie question in which was successfully answered by an expert. Meaning that if someone else came along looking for the same movie, they’d have a better chance at finding it, since it was already answered. So, I do acknowledge first-hand that legitimate, morally defendable reasons for keeping data, do exist.

However, with that in mind, I still respect and honor the user’s feelings on this matter, I just offer them more options. I explain to them that the information could still be helpful to others, so would they be fine if I simply deleted their account or otherwise anonymized their question instead, or are they sure that they’d rather the content be removed in its entirety? If they request the latter still (which rarely occurred after explaining to them), I respect their wishes.

The point is, the respect, privacy, and security of your users will always far outweigh the minor loss from removal of content here and there. Furthermore, it’s not your place to debate with the user. Just because you don’t see how it causes any issues for the user, it’s really not your business to understand. If it makes them uncomfortable for any reason, they shouldn’t have to explain, they should only need to inform you that it does and ask for your assistance.

There’s always two sides to everything so I’ll now open up the comments. If anyone can give me a legitimate moral reason (other than the reason I’ve provided in the update above) for any website to ever hold a user’s info hostage in the public format, I’d love to hear one.