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Data Portability: Facebook and Google Team Up to Share Data

Data Portability: Facebook and Google Team Up to Share Data

article by Aebha Curtis, Policy Analyst picture courtesy: Starlight

In the midst of several antitrust investigations taking place in Europe and the US, Facebook has announced its initiative to enable users to transfer photos between its own platform and Google Photos. The feature has been launched in Ireland, the home of the company’s international HQ, though it is set to be made available globally in the first half of 2020.

The move constitutes a step in the direction of enhanced data portability. In fact, the code on which the feature is based was developed by way of participation in the Data Transfer Project (DTP). Launched in 2018, the Project is an open-source initiative which is supposedly aimed at encouraging participation of services by “reducing the infrastructure burden on both providers and users”. The DTP has the backing of Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft and Twitter.

Data portability is a principle which seeks to make personal data movable. The aim is to prevent data’s enclosure in ‘walled gardens’. That is, to make sure that data controllers couldn’t prevent the transfer of data to another controller, effectively opening up competition among digital services and providers.

The right to data portability was enshrined in Article 20 of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. It has also been introduced in the US by way of the Californian Consumer Privacy Act. Hoping to redress the balance between platforms and users in relation to the collection and management of personal data, lawmakers have pushed for data portability as a way of fostering competition to provide users with greater choice. Portability further enables users to later change their mind, preventing vendor lock-in by facilitating easy transfer to other platforms.

In a blog post, Steve Satterfield, Facebook’s Director of Privacy and Public Policy writes that data portability “gives people control and choice while also encouraging innovation”.

However, commentators have noted that, in the case of social networks, it is the connections with other people that keep users onboard more so than their own data or content. Indeed, it is this ‘network effect’, whereby the value of the service is increased as the number of users (not volume of user-generated content) increases. While it is possible to argue that improved data portability options might encourage users to switch providers, others suggest that opening lines of communication between users and non-users, for messaging or event co-ordination purposes, would be a better option for cultivating competition.

In restricting such interactions, the size of Facebook’s userbase is not expected to reflect any change in data sharing practices: the network effect is the Goliath to data portability’s David. As such, these measures and tools represent only a mere gesture toward addressing those issues raised in the spate of recent antitrust investigations.

Certainly, given the €4.34bn fine that the EU hit Google with over the summer in relation to their violation of antitrust laws, it is no wonder that the company would be keen to participate in an initiative like the DTP. The move could simply be an attempt to rectify their image among lawmakers by demonstrating themselves to be encouraging competition.

Google and Facebook alike urgently need to improve appearances with regard to their data handling practices and it is worth noting that this photo sharing tool stands to do just that while having minimal impact on data input and value. The value of those photos as data sources, the inferences made from them being valuable to both platforms and the third-parties and advertisers to which they are sold, is not reduced by their having moved to another platform.

As the DTP’s Overview states, “It is worth noting that the Data Transfer Project doesn’t include any automated deletion architecture. Once a user has verified that the desired data is migrated, they would have to delete their data from their original service using that service’s deletion tool if they wanted the data deleted.” Facebook, then, will retain those photos being transferred unless further action is taken by the user.

Note, too, that the Project currently has no data governance body in place to oversee its processes and procedures. The Overview’s authors do write, “as the DTP matures it may benefit from the formation of a neutral governance body”. but make no further specification as to when the DTP is to be considered mature. Set up by the Google Data Liberation Front, an engineering team at Google, the DTP’s data governance can only be anticipated to be aligned with Google’s commercial goals as opposed to an external and neutral body.

In examining such initiatives like the DTP, regulators, lawmakers and users alike must consider what platforms really stand to gain or lose in participating. Are such measures truly capable of shaking up the status quo and opening up the market or do they only reinforce the hold that just a handful of major platforms have on our data?

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