We Need Updated Rules From Congress to Make It Easier for People to Move Their Data

While the internet is a force for social and economic empowerment, it is operating under a set of rules that were written 25 years ago, when people used fax machines rather than smartphones to share and communicate.

That’s why Facebook has called for updated rules for the internet to meet today’s challenges. One place to start would be by having new federal legislation that makes it easier for people to move their data between services. Digital platforms compete for consumers by offering an ever-improving set of products and features. Making it easier for people to shift between and among services will increase the competitive pressure on these companies.

Writing data portability into federal law is becoming a priority for Congress and rightfully so. It is essential to giving people choice and control over their online lives while making sure that companies can keep innovating. If someone shares their data with one service, like posting a photo of their birthday party on Facebook, they should be able to move it to other photo-sharing apps like Google Photos in a secure way. But without clear rules in this space, some companies will do all that they can to lock consumers and their data into their own apps, services and ecosystems.

Making data portability a reality also requires building trust and confidence to make data transfers easy and privacy protective. That can only come from federal regulations. People need clarity on what types of data they can move, how they can move it, and who is responsible for protecting it when they move it.

Facebook has been working for many years now to show how this can work. This week, we’re renaming the tool that people have been able to use to transfer their photos and videos to “Transfer Your Information.” This name change better reflects the different types of data that people can now use it to transfer from Facebook to other services. In addition to photos and videos, people can also transfer their posts and notes to a total of seven destinations. Tools like this make it easier for consumers to port more of their data, which in turn can promote innovation.

But action by a few companies is not enough. Clear guidance from Congress can make this a true industry-wide effort. To that end, we’re also continuing to invest in other industry partnerships such as the Data Transfer Project, which is an open-source collaboration among several technology companies to show how data transfers can be done directly between online platforms. And in 2019, we published a white paper to highlight privacy issues and drive policy discussions around data portability and privacy, and followed last year with detailed input into the Federal Trade Commission’s workshop on data portability.

Experts in technology competition and consumer groups agree that data portability can be valuable for people and innovators — if done right. For years, we’ve been engaging with stakeholders and policymakers from around the world to gather feedback and perspectives, which we use to improve our tools. We hope they also drive policy discussions forward around this issue.

Portability is the quintessential multi-stakeholder problem — it requires cooperation across companies and alignment with consumer expectations. So we need clear rules and common frameworks for all platforms to follow.

We know that having federal rules for data portability can work because it’s been done before. A generation ago, when cellphones were just starting to become common, there were no rules for porting your phone number from one carrier to another. Back then, starting over with a new cell phone carrier often meant starting over with a new cell phone number. Those days are gone because of rules written by the Federal Communications Commission requiring carriers to port people’s numbers if they want.

Of course, data portability when applied to the wide range of online services is orders of magnitude more complex than porting just a phone number. For example, stakeholders and policymakers will need to work out exactly what data types on different types of platforms should be subject to portability and how that data can be ported in a privacy-protective way. Congress must act to get it right.

With a new administration and a new Congress in place, this is the moment for federal action on data portability.


Bijan Madhani is the global privacy policy manager at Facebook, where he leads on product and policy issues related to Facebook’s place in the wider digital ecosystem.

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