Big News: Big Internet Platforms Making It Easy To Move Your Data Somewhere Else

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    So, just last week we had a post by Kevin Bankston from the Open Technology Institute arguing for some basic steps towards much greater data portability on social media. The idea was that the internet platforms had to make it much easier to not just download your data (which most of them already do), but to make it useful elsewhere. Bankston’s specific proposal included setting clear technical standards and solving the graph portability project. In talking about standards, Bankston referenced Google’s data transfer project, but that project has taken a big step forward today announcing a plan to let users transfer data automatically between platforms.

    The “headline” that most folks are focusing on is that Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter are all involved in the project (along with a few smaller companies), meaning that it should lead to a situation where you could easily transfer data between them. As it stands right now, the various services let you download your data, but getting it into another platform is still a hassle, making the whole “download your data” thing not all that useful beyond “oh, look at everything this company has about me.” Making a system where you can easily transfer all that data to another platform without having to manage the transition yourself or being left with a bunch of useless data is a big step forward — and a huge step towards giving users much more significant control over their data.

    But the really important thing that this may lead to is not so much about transferring your data between one of the giant platforms, but hopefully in opening up new businesses which would allow you to retain much greater control over your data, while limiting how much the platforms themselves keep. This is something we’ve talked about in the past concerning the true power of data portability. Rather than having it tied up in silos connected to the services you use, wouldn’t it be much better if I could keep a “data bank” of my data in a place that is secure — and where if and when I want to I can allow various services to access that data in order to provide the services I want?

    In other words, for many years I’ve complained about how we’ve lost the promise of cloud computing in just building up giant silos of data connected to the various online services. If we can separate out the data layer from the service layer, then we can get tremendous benefits, including (1) more end-user control over their own data (2) more competitive services and (3) less power to dominate everything by the biggest platforms. Indeed, we could even start to move towards a world of protocols instead of platforms.

    Of course, this is only one step in that direction, but it’s a big one. And, yes, it’s notable that the big platforms are all working on this together, since it has the potential to undermine their own powerful position. But it’s absolutely the right thing for them to do, and hopefully we’ll start to see much more interesting services pop up out of this. If it only ends up allowing people to shift between Google and Facebook that will be a failure. If it enables new services and more end user control over data — forcing various services to compete and provide better value in exchange for accessing our data — that would be a huge step forward in how the internet functions.

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