Facebook Has 4 Experts Weigh In on Data Portability

The social network’s Hard Questions series continues

Where do you stand on the data portability debate?

Data portability between Facebook and other applications was the focus of the latest installment in the social network’s Hard Questions series.

Director of public policy Matt Perault introduced a series of four guests posts weighing in on the topic, writing, “Being able to take our information from one app or service and move it to another makes our lives more convenient and promotes innovation. But, as we’ve seen with Cambridge Analytica, when third parties are able to access people’s information, even with their consent, that can also raise privacy concerns. That’s why we’re working with organizations and experts across the industry to develop approaches that make sure people can move their data between services in ways that protect their privacy.”

Highlights follow from the four guest posts:

Kevin Bankston, director, New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute:

Facebook has long treated its possession of your friends’ contact information as a key competitive advantage, making it difficult for users to collect or export it. For example, when users were first able to share an email address with friends on their profile page, it was displayed as a graphic rather than text, so that it couldn’t be cut and pasted. Some users may also recall when Facebook, in 2012, temporarily replaced users’ non-Facebook addresses with new “@facebook.com” addresses by default, making it harder to obtain off-Facebook contact information about your friends. And although there’s a hard-to-find setting where Facebook users can allow their friends to download their contact information, it is by default set not to allow such downloading—one of the rare Facebook settings that defaults away from, rather than toward, more sharing with friends.

Facebook has consistently justified its attempts to restrict sharing contact info as a privacy and security measure, but the alignment with its own business goals was always more than a little convenient. That’s rather ironic, considering that a huge part of Facebook’s meteoric growth was driven by importing contact information from other services.

Data portability—letting someone download their data and transfer it elsewhere—isn’t the only way that people can leverage their Facebook data on another service. There’s also interoperability—the ability to use the Facebook Platform API (application-programming interface) to run an app that can make use of your Facebook data on an ongoing basis. The problem is that Facebook’s policy for app developers has long required that in order to make full use of the API, apps “can’t replicate core Facebook features or functionality, and must not promote [their] other apps that do so.” For example, “your app is not eligible … if it contains its own in-app chat functionality or its own user generated feed” akin to Facebook’s messaging product or Facebook’s News Feed. If Facebook wants to shed its image as a platform monopolist, it needs to remove this anti-competitive provision and allow users to easily make use of their Facebook data on interoperable competing services.

Mark Jamison, director and Gunter professor, Public Utility Research Center:

If users of these products feel like renowned science-fiction star Truman Burbank, who discovers that his whole life has been captured by hidden cameras, it’s for good reason. Too many social media companies have allowed people to remain ignorant of how they’re being watched and who’s doing the watching.

If customers like portability and companies want to provide it, then it’s a win-win. But legislating portability in the name of enhancing competition is problematic and far more complicated than policy makers may realize.

Unfortunately, it may be too late to avoid some of the regulatory and legislative fallout. But the options being considered—open vs. closed systems and data portability—seem to miss the impetus for the user outcries. Users are upset because they’re surprised and dismayed by revelations about how tech companies use people’s data. They feel they lost something that was rightfully theirs.

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