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How to preserve your digital memories

Following recent announcements by Google and Twitter, more data deletion policies are coming.

glitch effect on a 1950's era image of a mother smiling at an infant son
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I recently published a short story about new policies recently announced by Google and Twitter that allow the companies to remove inactive accounts. Google said the decision was based on security concerns, and experts I spoke with said that these sorts of policies are likely to become the norm. 

It got me thinking about my own email records, and the systems that we have—or, more precisely, don’t have—for preserving our digital lives. 

Globally, around 347 billion emails are sent every day, according to data analysis by Zippia Research. My own archive holds treasured messages marking some of the more important days of my life: a letter of acceptance to graduate school, travel plans with my sisters, a job offer at Tech Review, an invitation to reconnect with a close friend with whom I’d lost touch. 

I have many more mundane and unexceptional emails chronicling the patterns of my days that I still value deeply: a record of an argument and its resolution with one of my best friends, generous and consistent feedback from my parents on the stories I write, and the adoption papers for my rescued dog. 

I’ve never thought all that much about what to do with all these digital records. I have had a sort of expectation that I will always have the ability to access and manage my emails on my own terms. I don’t currently save particularly important ones the way I store cherished handwritten letters in a shoebox. I probably need to adjust the way I think about these things.

Because of course, in reality, I’m just renting space from a network of computer servers and cables under the ocean, called the cloud, owned by a tech company with an annual revenue of over $200 billion. And as one of my sources, Data & Society researcher Robyn Caplan, told me, it’s “a lot to ask of them to provide these spaces for us indefinitely.”

There is no guarantee of digital permanence. Though tech companies certainly reference data storage and archiving as a core selling point of their services, online documents like emails are at once both more permanent and more ephemeral than analog letters. And we all need to get used to this idea.

The new policies foreground the ephemerality. “It feels like a broken promise somehow,” says Caplan. But the promise was, largely, only implied.

Ever-growing expansion of personal data is a particularly acute problem when we consider the long history of humanity. Around 180,000 people die each day, leaving terabytes of data hanging around in the cyberverse. The Internet Archive currently archives more than 1 billion URLs a day from the public web. 

But should all that personal information really start being deleted on a rolling basis three to five years after we leave this life, or however long it takes until our children stop nostalgically logging in to our email accounts? 

Many folks are working on answering that question and thinking about new ways to pass on digital possessions. In the meantime, during my reporting I learned about a couple of tools at our disposal for more actively managing our digital records:

  1. You can always download important files, emails, and pictures to a hard drive.
  2. Google lets you send specific files to designated people once accounts are inactive though its Inactive Account Manager.
  3. The Internet Archive has a process for archiving your tweets. You can also join volunteers who help the project archive public websites.

What else I’m reading

  • Montana became the first state to ban TikTok this week, a move prompted by concerns about Chinese espionage. Users of TikTok have already sued the state, calling the policy a violation of their First Amendment rights.
  • The US Federal Trade Commission issued a warning to companies that it is cracking down on the irresponsible use of biometric data. I’ll be watching to see whether the commission takes more action against face recognition companies or biometric data sharing going forward.
  • Sam Altman testified in front of Congress at the beginning of the week about the need for more regulation of AI, and everyone was talking about his policy ideas. Here are some of my favorite stories and takes.

One more bite of news...

I usually use this final section to discuss some new tech policy research, but this week I want to briefly cover the Supreme Court’s rulings on two cases related to Section 230, the US law that allows social media companies to moderate user-generated content with high degrees of immunity. In both cases, Gonzalez v. Google and Twitter v. Taamneh, the social media platforms were implicated for the impact of terrorist content on their platforms. If the Court had decided differently, it could have limited the extent of protection that Section 230 provides tech companies and reshaped the modern web

Yesterday, the Court ruled in favor of both tech companies without clarifying Section 230 to resolve whether platforms should be held liable for user-generated content on their sites, a question that has become a central pain point in digital safety regulation in the US. It was a win for tech companies and free-speech enthusiasts, but it largely pushes Section 230 reform back to Congress and, frankly, lower on the legislative priority list.

Deep Dive


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