On 25 October, Twitpic announced that Twitter had agreed to take over its failing service and would keep its users’ photos and data “alive”. Twitpic was once an independent third party photo sharing site that enabled people to upload photos quickly and easily to Twitter. However, since Twitter allowed its users to upload photos directly to the site, the purpose of Twitpic became defunct.1
On the surface the move appears easy and functional. All of Twitpic’s users are Twitter users, and instead of closing down the entire site and deleting all of that data, Twitter has taken over the company. It seems relatively agreeable. However, this acquisition is actually a move towards making the internet a centralized place where a few large companies own vast amounts of our data.
What really happens to our data and its privacy when companies are bought out?
Different social media and photo sharing sites have different privacy policies. Consequently, when a company is bought out, there’s a high chance that their policies will eventually reflect those of their new parent company. When Facebook took over the photo sharing site Instagram for $1billion in 2012, Mark Zuckerberg insisted that nothing about Instagram would change. Facebook’s only goal, he claimed, was for Instagram to continue to grow and improve.2 Yet within less than a year Instagram’s terms of service began to change to reflect Facebook’s vision of making the world more “open and transparent”.3 Despite backlash from the public, by the end of 2013 Instagram’s privacy policies changed to allow the parent company, Facebook, more access to users’ data and advertisements began appearing on Instagram users’ pages.4 However, this was not what initial Instagram users signed up for. Secondly, the ethics that underline different companies can be diverse and conflicting. Facebook recently acquired WhatsApp, the app that allows users to text message anyone almost for free. Unlike Facebook, WhatsApp is partly founded on the idea of limiting data collection and preventing the exploitation of users’ information. On their blog, WhatsApp’s founders posted an article explaining “Why we don’t sell ads.” Both founders worked for Yahoo! and had seen how much users’ data was mined and manipulated into targeted ads. WhatsApp was to turn away from that; they would focus on the product and not on users’ data. “Remember, when advertising is involved you the user are the product,” they explained. “Your data isn’t even in the picture. We are simply not interested in any of that.”5
Yet WhatsApp is now owned by Facebook and it is most likely that its will eventually be monetized through advertisements.
Thirdly, what happens to users’ data? Twitpic’s final blog post on 25 October dubiously states that the photos and links will be kept alive “for the time being”. No further data can be uploaded to Twitpic and the existing data exists in a read-only format. Users can still log in to and delete either their content or their accounts.6 Yet we cannot be sure of the security of that data long-term. Not only is it the preservation of users’ data that we need to worry about (for instance, users using Twitpic as an online storage space for their photos akin to Dropbox), but we also need to be concerned about the security of that data. For example, will Twitter give additional third parties access to Twitpic’s archives in order to generate additional advertising revenue? Could Twitter change its privacy settings and display Twitpic’s archives publicly on people’s Twitter feeds? There is something worrying about having large online institutions that harbour people’s personal information when these companies have not given adequate thought as to what will happen to their users’ data if they go under. What we need are companies who will protect our data, no matter their circumstances.
A final point is that the acquisition of Twitpic is another move towards just a few digital companies owning the majority of our online personal information. Independent third parties are important for decentralisation and competition. If users dislike the way that Twitter appears to them on their screens because of all the changes made to design and layout due to advertising, they can access Twitter through third party apps.7 Monopolisation of the market enables companies like Facebook to change their terms and to reduce users’ rights because their users do not have anywhere else to go. In the case of WhatsApp, if people did not like the lack of security of Facebook Messenger or did not like Facebook at all, they could use WhatsApp instead. But now this choice has been taken away.