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One More Thing

Stranded: Baratunde Thurston On Why We Need An App Users' Bill Of Rights

"How about we consumers draft a 'reverse terms of service' that we force companies to agree to when we sign up?"

Stranded: Baratunde Thurston On Why We Need An App Users' Bill Of Rights

[Illustration by Robert Samuel Hanson]

Technology companies are always courting us. They want our money. They want our data, which can be redeemed for money. They want our attention, which can, in theory, be converted into money. So they promise a brighter future. Occasionally the plumage and the mating dance impress us, and we part with our funds, our personal info, our time. We exclaim to our friends, "Come over here! They've got free T-shirts, shrimp, and unlimited storage!" Ain't love grand?

As consumers we've been told that we're in charge, so we enjoy the ritual, even though it's exhausting. We even decide when we'll opt out. But what happens when companies walk away from us first? It's happening an awful lot these days. One consequence of it being easier and cheaper than ever to launch a product is that anything that doesn't achieve Snapchat-like hypergrowth gets left for dead or euthanized, loyal users be damned.

The worst offender? Google. If users and companies are in a relationship, Google is a perpetual speed dater. Remember when Google launched Voice? Seemed like it could be the phone company we'd always dreamed of. I could route my calls to wherever I was, search my texting history, even have Google transcribe my voice mail. Voice wasn't perfect—I longed to send and receive picture messages—but the implicit promise was that Google would keep investing in the product.

Since 2009, Google has built a social network, taken command of the smartphone market, launched Internet weather balloons, and crafted futuristic glasses with apps inside of them! So, hey, Google, about that Voice product. . . . It's been five years, and I was wondering when I'll be able to know when my friends text me an image. What if they sent those messages from the self-driving car you've also found time and money to build? No? Alas, Voice users have been abandoned. Multiply this by the dozens of apps the company has orphaned or outright killed, and the scores of companies whose teams get "acqui-hired" and their products nixed, and you see the problem.

How about we consumers draft a "reverse terms of service" that we force companies to agree to when we sign up? Those who simply click "I agree" without reading will be delighted to discover later that they've guaranteed user sovereignty over our data, committed to real security protocols, and promised us one gallon of ice cream on our birthdays. At the least, we need a promise that says if companies maroon us, they will do so gracefully and respectfully.

Expecting to be treated properly doesn't have to be a fantasy. When Posterous, a Tumblr rival, decided to shutter its blogging service, it gave users two months' notice, made it easy to save posts and pictures, and the founders even launched a $5-per-month service called Posthaven that promised to stay up forever.

Most breakups, though, are bad, the equivalent of getting dumped by text. Can we demand alimony? Punitive damages? Weekend visitation rights to our cat GIFs?

Sadly, we should just assume that eventually we will be forsaken. The onus is on us—to always have a backup plan, to keep our guard up so our heart isn't broken yet again in what turned out to be a fling and not a relationship. And before feeling too defeated by this notion, we should ask ourselves honestly, Is it better to have Google Waved and lost than never to have Google Waved at all?

A version of this article appeared in the February 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.