Data portability policies to ensure and open and competitive internet - an idea whose time has come?

Data Portability

I recently shared the concept of developing data portability policies, standards, and best practices as a potential project for New Media Rights' Drumbeat San Diego event, and as project that could fit within Mozilla's larger Drumbeat initiative fostering projects that celebrate and ensure and open web.

A rough sketch of such a project is outlined below.

Please provide some feedback and let us know what you think about data portability in a comment below.

Data Portability on the Open Internet

This project begins with the concept that user choice, and user control over their experience, should remain a distinguishing feature of the open internet.

To maintain a healthy competition amongst online services heavily reliant on user-submitted data, it will become increasingly important to make sure user data is easily portable. This will help ensure that popular services make changes according to the interests of their users, and that new services can compete on the basis of their merits and usability, without artificial barriers to competition. Keeping data in the hands of users, rather than allowing confusing legal and technological techniques to lock upconsumer data, will help ensure an open and competitive internet.

The question is how to create a development environment that encourages data portability without applying onerous and excessively specific legal mandates on diverse applications and services.

This project will need legal and technical expertise, along with input from end users to understand the day-to-day needs of the end user.

The project could produce sample data portability policies based on the type of service or application, sets of best technological practices for service and application development, certifications based on meeting certain portability standards, a simplified badge system for websites to display their portability policies to users, etc.


- balancing privacy and security concerns with portability concerns

- providing incentives for services to provide portability

- there are already large, established services with significant market shares in the areas of internet video, social networking, etc.

How do we ensure these services continue to respond to their users rather than simply exploit their overwhelming market share?


 - What are the requirements for everyday users regarding data portability?

- What organizations (academic, non-profit, for-profit, or otherwise) have expertise that could assist in such a project?

The idea stems from Jonathan Zittrain’s cursory discussion of the importance of data portability in his book, The Future of the Internet. I encourage you to visit the entire section that discusses data portability on page 176 for more background.

The book is licensed Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Sharealike.

Here are some excerpted ideas from Zittrain’s discussion that I think are relevant

“Maintaining the prospect that users can switch ensures that changes to wildly popular platforms and services are made according to the interests of their users. There has been ongoing debate about just how much of a problem lock-in can be with a technology...

Competition can be stymied when people find themselves compelled to retain one platform only because their data is trapped there...

Makers of tethered appliances and Web sites keeping customer data similarly ought to be asked to offer portability policies. These policies would declare whether they will allow users to extract their own data should they wish to move their activities from one appliance or Web site to another...

In some cases, the law could create a right of data portability, in addition to merely insisting on a clear statement of a site’s policies. Traditional software as product nearly always keeps its data files stored on the user’s PC in formats that third parties can access...

As we enter an era in which a photograph moves ephemerally from a camera’s shutter click straight to the photographer’s account at a proprietary storage Web site with no stop in between, it will be helpful to ensure that the photos taken can be returned fully to the custody of the photographer. Portability of data is a generative insurance policy to apply to individual data wherever it might be stored. A requirement to ensure portability need not be onerous. It could apply only to uniquely provided personal data such as photos and documents, and mandate only that such data ought to readily be extractable by the user in some standardized form. Maintaining data portability will help people pass back and forth between the generative and the non-generative, and, by permitting third-party backup, it will also help prevent a situation in which a non-generative service suddenly goes offline, with no recourse for those who have used the service to store their data...”

"Dominiek's Data Portability Icon" by flickr user dominiekth used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license

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