Earlier this week, the founders of Instagram up and left Facebook five years after Facebook bought their company. But quitting isn’t so easy for the rest of us. Facebook has our friends, our pictures and our snarky comments. It’s why there are so few real competitors. And if you switch to a smaller social network, it’s pretty lonely. But earlier this year, Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Twitter announced a project to make it easier to move your personal information between services. That data portability is just what it sounds like — creating the option for users to move on. We talked with Kevin Bankston, director of the Open Technology Institute at New America, a think tank in Washington, D.C., about one big reason for the portability project: the European privacy law known as GDPR. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kevin Bankston: [GDPR] actually has in that law a requirement of data portability, that is a requirement that companies give you tools to download the data that they’ve previously uploaded in a way that makes it easy for them to move that data elsewhere.
Molly Wood: What are some of the drawbacks here? I mean, is it going to be as great as all that? I could potentially take all of my data from Facebook and just move it over to some hot new startup social network and have an instant network effect?
Bankston: Well, it’s important to distinguish between the low-hanging fruit and then the sort of harder cases that might actually be the most important. The biggest type of data that you want to be able to move is going to be what’s called your social graph, that is the network of your friends and connections itself. And the problem there is this is information about other people that they put up and that they submitted in the context of that social network. And they may not want you to be able to export information about them to another service. And so there’s this really big question and problem in regard to what may be the most important data that you need to rebuild your social network on another social network service is exactly the data that raises the most privacy problems. And indeed it is just this kind of data about who your friends are and their contact information and the like that was at the heart of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Wood: Got it. So there could be sort of a gatekeeper effect where maybe these big companies would say, “Look, the safest thing for us is to allow complete data portability between Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft”?
Bankston: Well, yes, certainly there’s a open question that I think Cambridge Analytica highlighted, which is how responsible are, or should, the platforms be for the misuse of data that may occur if they allow you to export your data to another company? And if the trend is toward holding them fully responsible, then they’re only going to let you share your data with super-trusted, pretty much already well-established companies, which is not a recipe for innovation and competition. It’s a recipe for lock-in of the existing winners in the market.