Should Web Apps Hold On to My Data?

We (being Capulet and Northern Voice) have been using the project management app Basecamp for a couple of years, and I’ve been extremely happy with it. I’ve sung its praises to a bunch of people, and am responsible for sending them several customers.

Lately, though, we haven’t been using it very much at Capulet. I’m not sure why exactly (more instant messaging? Remember the Milk?) but we decided to cancel our Basecamp subscription. It’s only CAN $30 a month, but there’s no point in spending the money if we’re not using the tool.

But what happens to your data if you cancel? I emailed 37signals to ask, and here’s their terse reply:

If you cancel your account your data is deleted.

I see that there was export functionality, but “this feature is currently unavailable”. I’ve asked for a timeline on when this might be available again.

Regardless, this raises an interesting question. What obligations do web-based applications like Basecamp have in terms of their customer data? Should they store it indefinitely or delete it when I stop paying them? I think Hotmail (a free service, obviously) ‘hibernates’ your email for a number of months of non-use. The same goes for characters in games like World of Warcraft or Star Wars: Galaxies–they may in fact store them indefinitely.

In Basecamp’s case, the amount of data involved is pretty small-it’s only text. Surely the cost to store that data for, say, two years, is minute compared to the CAN $720 I’ve paid them over the past two years? It’d be nice customer service and a differentiator, if nothing else.


  1. the nice people at the company might think that by getting rid of your data they are doing you a favor. it’s a way of letting you know that whatever data you had in that account is not going to find its way into the wrong hands once you’ve moved on and forgotten about it. gone is the same as safe.

    some of the other websites you mentioned may hold onto your acount forever. but, those are different types of accounts with a different types of information.

    the number of jedi mind tricks your online character can do is not as important as, let’s say, the names and numbers of your clients and info about who’s in charge of what in your office and how fast you take to complete tasks as a group.

  2. I don’t have a live account currently to go confirm but I think you can archive each project (which keeps them for later but makes them unusable while archived, used to respect your project limit) and then downgrade your account to the free level. I’m sure you can archive and downgrade, just not sure if you can combine the two when you have more archived projects than the new level allows.

  3. Darren, I’ve recently tested ActiveCollab, a “Basecamp-like” project management tool that you can download and install on your host for free. Requires php5. Might help with your post-Basecamp hangover.

  4. My experience with hotmail accounts is that if you don’t log in for a period of 30 days, they hibernate the address (a good description, actually): Your account is still there waiting for you, but you have to reactivate it. All of your email is gone, and emails sent to the address get rejected.

  5. I actually like the idea that your data (especially sensitive stuff like project details) is deleted when you close your account; it’s actually one of the things I check before using a web-based app. The idea that an entity with whom I no longer have any sort of contractual relationship still has their copy of my work isn’t something that fills me with confidence.

    The flipside is that I also expect to be able to export my work to some sort of open format to use elsewhere if an app isn’t for me. The fact that you can’t export from Basecamp is most disturbing — that’s like saying that it’s not your data on their servers, it’s theirs, and you can’t get at it unless you keep paying. No bonus points if you can guess whose behaviour this reminds me of.

    Admittedly, I don’t use a lot of web apps — this is largely due to my techno-curmudgeonliness and not trusting a lot of these operations, but also because I can’t always count on having a network connection when I’m out in the field.

  6. They *delete* your data? And there’s no way to export it? Whoa. That’s really harsh.

    I thought being able to get all your data out of web apps at any time was one of the basic primary tenets of the web 2.0 manifesto. (where did I see that web 2.0 manifesto…?)

  7. I should clarify that apparently you were, at some point, able to export your data. It’s unclear whether you could export your data up to last week, and they’ve just disabled this featured for a few days to upgrade it, or whether the feature has been disabled for two years…

  8. > I’m sure you can archive and downgrade

    Patrick, I don’t believe you can. In fact, I recall specific verbiage to the effect of there being no downgrade path to free, so people can’t turn their payment stream off and on.

    I’m of the thinking that you should own your data, and be able to take it with you when you decide to pack up and leave. Hopefully the export feature will be turned on again soon, rather than force you into another monthly payment while you wait for it to be re-activated.

    Should all web services keep your data around forever? I’m not sure – that stuff adds up and while storage is cheap it does present an operational challenge and ongoing cost to maintain unused info indefinitely. I also have to point out that game data and business data are very different things, the former only useful in the game environment, and the latter being much more portable to other legitimate and illegit uses, so they’re two different problems, methinks.

  9. I need to add that your Basecamp data also includes uploaded files, not just text. There are caps on the individual and total file sizes, but it does add up much more quickly than keystrokes, that’s for sure.

  10. Todd: On that last point, that’s not true of our account. We set up our FTP server as the destination for uploaded files (I don’t think we had another option at the time), so we only have text stored on Basecamp’s servers.

  11. Looks like you are/were able to export some but not all of what you had stored. From Everything Basecamp:

    Note: You can export messages and comments — you can not export to-do lists, milestones, or contacts from Basecamp.

    Um, all right then. The stuff you can export is exported “in XML format.” No indication of what XML dialect they use or of tools that can work with the exported data (as opposed to rolling your own or getting a guru to make one). All that feel-good language in the Basecamp manifesto is sounding a bit hollow right about now.

  12. Ian: Yeah, I read that page and was going to link to it, except that currently on the ‘Account’ page within Basecamp (to which your link refers), you get the following:

    “Need to export your data?

    This feature is currently unavailable while we’re working on improving the performance of the export. You may want to check out the Basecamp API in the meantime.”

    So you definitely were able to export stuff, but you currently cannot.

  13. Darren: Even though there was (and will be?) an export capability, I’m still bothered by the fact that, it only exported part of your data — and it’s unclear whether the data is in a form that can be reused somewhat painlessly. Setting aside any real or imagined ‘Web 2.0’ ideals, it still feels like lock-in.

  14. There should always be a way to get all data out. Not just for fear that someone will steal it (cause it’s unlikely, especially in Basecamp where you’re storing a minimum amount to begin with that there’s anything uber-secret) but because there’s a good chance the data only exists in that application, whether it’s Basecamp or something else.

    If you’re moving to another system, it’s important to have an export feature (XML or at least CSV for data) so you can re-import it into the next application.

    My guess with Basecamp is that they figure there’s so little data, and so little of uber-importance (or private) stored in their system that people won’t really care about extracting it out if they leave Basecamp.

    But in a more comprehensive tool, where you’re storing more data, potentially more private data, budget data, etc. there better be a way to pull it out (and all your files.)

  15. You can export your data. The folks at Basecamp are good folks, whatever I think of the app (I use it heavily but gnash my teeth every time I do :P).

    Using the API, you have access to everything.

    I suspect they are in fact *improving* the export feature to export more of it. Now that Dave Winer has linked here…well, it would be good to clear up: I highly doubt that Basecamp is the kind of company that needs to be pointed to as an example.

    Also, if I were them, I’d actually write an importer, or even a sync capability, for things like companies and contacts.

  16. Boris: Well, you may be able to export your data, but most people couldn’t. I could pay somebody to export my data or build an exporter, I suppose, but that’s more money or effort than I want to expend.

    Part of my point, actually, was that their response to my enquiry wasn’t particularly helpful. If they’d said “you’ll be able to export your data in a couple of weeks”, then I probably wouldn’t have written this post at all. As it stands, I don’t know when I’ll be able to get my data out.

    Like I say, I really like the app, and bear the Basecamp folks no ill will. They’ve just made life slightly more difficult for me.

  17. It seems like a case of bad judgment on 37signals’ part to allow the export feature to be disabled for more than a few days.

    Rule #2 of Hosted Software:
    “Customer data is sacred.”

    (Rule #1 is “Uptime is non-negotiable.”)

    Also, if the only reason the feature was disabled was “for performance reasons”, then they could easily put some “you can only export once a month” rule in place until they have the performance issues resolved.

    37 signals is a small company and they seem very reasonable people, so I actually believe they’ll find an acceptable solution for you.

  18. I’ve been making small business databases for twenty years. I’ve made many web-based database applications. I have never, ever found any use for an export of a database except as a backup.

    The reason is that there, as much as one might like it, no two databases are alike. Even when I start with a previous project, the new one changes enough so that importing data would be meaningless.

    I am confident that if you had been able to export from Basecamp, the file would sit on your computer forever but would never be useful.

    I say relax and make sure that info that is generally useful is also stored somewhere else.


  19. TQII: The only place I’d want to use the data is back in Basecamp again at a future date. For example, it would be handy not to have to re-enter all my customer data if I restart my Basecamp use in 6 months or a year.

  20. Don’t you feel that your notice: “Pinging (also known as ‘trackbacks’) is currently not allowed” is similar to web apps that keep your info? (Except in the opposite direction, of course.)

    The web apps don’t want to waste their time returning what’s yours, and non-pinging comments won’t return the favor of paying attention to what you say — or will, but only on their terms.

    There is a (small) similarity. Give me and * you.

    Although you can see it the other way, that a comments section is an opportunity (subsidised, in a way) to express one’s self. But still…


  21. Sabadashus: Sorry, I don’t see much similarity at all.

    * On my site, users can still comment (a far more common mode of feedback and interaction). I have no easy recourse for getting my data out of Basecamp today.

    * No one is paying me to provide this service, thus I have far fewer obligations to my ‘users’.

    * Trackbacks are turned off because of the insane volume of trackback spam. There are no such barriers for Basecamp’s export function.

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