Who Owns Your Online Identity?

Web 2.0 Suicide MachineTired of social media? Maybe you’re like Rich, and you want to delete your Facebook account.

Well, there’s an app for that, the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine (h/t TechCrunch). Yeah, it’s a web app, but work with me here. Somehow I doubt this one would make it past Apple’s censors.

The Web 2.0 Suicide Machine can permanently and irrevocably nuke your digital identity from Twitter, LinkedIn and MySpace. They were also nuking Facebook identities, but apparently, Facebook put a quick stop to that by blocking the service’s IP.

Not a surprise really, since last month, Facebook also blocked Seppukoo (h/t Mashable), another site dedicated to removing identities from Facebook.

What’s the big deal, you ask? Can’t I do this manually?

Yes and no. The app works with your credentials to kill off your profile and postings and terminates your relationships. It doesn’t delete your account, but instead, changes your password so you can’t log back in easily. The automated scripts work much more quickly than completing the process manually would, and you can watch the process work.

Fun! I especially like the unfriending and tweet removal counters and the list of recent digital suicides.

There are some interesting issues lurking here.

First off, I’m not in love with the idea of passing my account credentials to a bot, especially if that bot is subsequently locking me out of said account. The Suicide Machine doesn’t use OAuth, natch, since it’s logging in as you. I don’t know what Moddr, the company behind the Suicide Machine, does with my credentials. They say in the FAQ:

Do you store any data on your webserver, like password of the user?
We don’t store your password on our server! Seriously, it goes directly into /dev/null, which is equal to nirvana! We only save your profile picture, your name and your last words!

And, they offer to help you build your own machine.

Can I build my own suicide machine?
Theoretically yes! You’ll need a Linux WebServer (apache2) with perl and python modules (php should be installed as well). Further, you’ll need VNC-server and Java packages by Sun to launch selenium-remote applets. If you feel like contributing and can convince us with decent programming skills, please get in contact with us via email. We don’t make the source code publicly available, since Facebook, Twitter, Myspace and LinkedIn would figure out how the suicidemachine is working in detail! So, please do not contact us, if you work for one of these companies!

Regardless, I’ll bet this spawns an open source project somewhere.

Digital suicide is one thing, but in some cases, your artifacts live on in Google’s cache after you’ve quit, as we’ve been reminded several times when people tweet and delete. Facebook is a different matter, but there really is no way to know what they do with your data after your account is deleted.

The most interesting piece here is ownership of data. Your online identity should belong to you, but in practice, it does not. By using services like Twitter and Facebook, you are agreeing to their terms, which serve them as corporate entities and not (necessarily) you.

This sounds evil, but it’s really just the way things are.

For example, when someone leaves Oracle, we remove the profile from Connect but retain all the posts, comments and other artifacts created during that person’s tenure. Our goal is to keep the information for use on Connect and maintain the threads as is. Of course, we don’t have a company based on these data.

The data of more than 300 million members make Facebook successful. That’s why they’re blocking these automated quitting services; oh and this is a clear violation of their terms. I’m reminded of a scene in “The Godfather”.

As more people use and leave Facebook, Twitter and the others, the debate about ownership of digital data will escalate. It’s a sticky one, and one worth following because it affects pretty much all of us.

Check out Chris Messina’s thoughts on online identity for a much more fully baked argument. Expect OpenID and Data Portability to rise to the top of this debate in 2010. We’ll see how they fare against the likes of Facebook Connect and, well, Facebook in general.

Anyway, if you’re sick and tired of social media, it’s not too late to add the Suicide Machine to your list of resolutions for 2010. Maybe I should have predicted something about the battle for online identity. Fail.

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AboutJake

a.k.a.:jkuramot

6 comments

  1. One reason I like Google, or at least the Data Liberation Front (http://www.dataliberation.org/) movement from within Google. That would make them not evil.

    I suspect that some of these apps cannot remove all of your data due to constraints, either in the database or in the application. That's definitely a decision, that depending on what layer, that would keep them from being able to do so.

  2. Remove is a funny word. I highly doubt that deleting an account drops any rows from the database; it probably just hides the rows from the app. That's how we handle deletes. All the DBAs out there are nodding in agreement.

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