Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

How safe is your data on free services?

Last week’s post about Delicious and Pinboard got me thinking. Pinboard has a clear business model – everyone pays to use it. Delicious’ business model is not so clear – there’s no advertising or premium accounts available. So how does it make money? And does the fact that its income sources are unclear make it a risky place to store data?

I decided to look at many of the popular free sites which let you store or create personal data, and how they make money. Also, how easy it would be to get your data out of these sites should they decide to close, like Gowalla.


Delicious, as stated, doesn’t appear to have an obvious income source. We know that it was recently taken over by the founders of YouTube, who presumably aren’t short of a bob or two, but without a regular source of income, what are its longterm prospects like?

Fortunately, Delicious has had an export function for a long time and this has persisted in the re-design, so in the event of it shutting down you should have little trouble moving to a rival service like Pinboard. Therefore, despite its potentially shaky financial standing, the risk of losing all of your data is mitigated by the fact that you can easily back it up and take it elsewhere.


Dropbox is the wonderful cloud storage and syncing utility that I post about on occasion (here’s my referral link). Here, the business model is much clearer – whilst the vast majority of its users have free accounts, you can pay money for extra space. It may even be profitable. And because it synchronises files between computers, should Dropbox ever go down or cease to exist, you should still have a copy of those files on a computer of your own somewhere. So it’s pretty safe in that respect.


Evernote lets you store notes in the cloud, so that any notes that you write on your desktop, or any web pages you clip on your work computer, are also accessible on your mobile. Like Dropbox, it’s a ‘freemium’ service – there’s a basic free account available, but you can also pay extra – $5 a month or $45 per year for more storage and features. The fact that Evernote has recently bought Skitch suggests that the company is in good financial shape too. As for getting your data out, the desktop applications let you export data but as the service primarily synchronises notes between devices then – like Dropbox – you should have a local copy of any notes anyway.


We all know what Facebook does, and its very public confirmation that it is supported by advertising was part of the impetus behind this blog post. The site is certainly not in financial trouble and still appears to be growing despite competition from the likes of Google+. As for exporting your data, there’s a link to download everything on your Account Settings page.


Flickr, as one of the oldest services on here (it’ll be 8 years old in February), certainly has staying power, and backing of a big corporation in the form of Yahoo! It also has a successful freemium model – as in even northern misers like me are happy to pay up. There’s no official export tool but third-party tools like flickredit and Migratr exist to get all of your pictures out should you wish.


As you will know I’m an avid user of Foursquare and thankfully the company seems to be on a more secure financial groundin than its former rival Gowalla. Income seems to come from two main sources – badges from partner brands, and agreements with sites such as LivingSocial to display their deals on the Foursquare site and in the mobile applications. I don’t know whether this covers their costs but as the company is still growing its future seems reasonably bright.


I doubt that Google makes any money directly from Google+ – in fact I believe Google have stated that Google+ won’t carry advertising – but the data that it accumulates through +1s and shared links will help its search business. Google thankfully has a strong ‘data liberation’ policy which means you only have to visit its Google Takeout page to export most of your data.


Instagram has become insanely popular, considering it’s a very basic photo sharing tool that lets you apply ‘vintage’ filters to your photos to make them look old, and that it only works on the iPhone or iPod Touch. Its business model is also a little suspect – the app is free, there’s no advertising and no ‘freemium’ features – but this is something that Instagram addresses in its FAQ, stating that in future some freemium features may be in the pipeline. Again, no official export feature but Instaport will download all of your images for you, as Instagram have been nice enough to include an official API. If you’re like me, most of your Instagram pictures ended up on Flickr anyway, and it can store any pictures taken on your device’s Camera Roll as well.

Like Flickr, has a big corporate owner in the form of CBS, so its future is likely to be reasonably secure. It also follows the freemium model – paid users don’t see ads and get access to extra features and more opportunities to play music on the site. There doesn’t appear to be an official export feature but I imagine a third party tool exists.


Twitter took a while before it exploded into popularity – the site has existed since March 2006 and is therefore almost 6 years old – but making money has been a relatively recent aim of the company. Since April last year, advertisers have been able to pay to have promoted tweets inserted into user’s timelines or to have a phrase or hashtag pinned in the trending topics on the site. Whilst this is pulling in millions of dollars of revenue, whether this covers their costs is debatable. But Twitter is such an unstoppable juggernaut I can’t see it closing anytime soon, and it has resisted being bought out.

Once again, there’s no official export feature. It is possible to use a third party client to backup your tweets however only the 3200 most recent tweets can be viewed via the API – so if you have posted more than 3200 tweets the oldest ones won’t be accessible.

Although it’s recently lost out to Tumblr as the most popular hosted blogging platform, is still home to millions of blogs. Again, a freemium model applies, with additional features available to those who pay along with premium blog themes available at extra cost. As with the self-hosted version of WordPress, all content can easily be exported as well.

In summary

If you’ve got a free account on most of these services then you’re probably okay. Whilst some have no obvious source of regular income, there is at least a way of getting your data out of the site if it announces it is to close. Others, like Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and are likely to be too big to fail, even if exporting your data is a hassle.

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