Google gives users a data opt-out


A new Google feature wants to make us think about where, and how, we store our data online, writes GORDON SMITH

OUR DIGITAL lives mean many of the things dearest to us – messages to friends, family photos, our music collection – are a series of ethereal ones and zeroes scattered across websites. Now that we can’t physically touch them, are we still in control of where they’re kept? Google thinks this matters.

The company is about three-quarters of the way through the technical work needed to enable its various services such as Gmail, Google Docs, Picasa, Blogger and YouTube with a single button that lets people download all of their data to their own computer.

Why? Retaining customers by keeping them hostage doesn’t work; rather it is by earning their trust – and what better way to do so than setting them free?

“It’s another coin in the bank of trust. It takes years to build up your trust account but you can empty it out very quickly,” says Brian Fitzpatrick, a Google engineering manager.

Fitzpatrick runs the Data Liberation Front, a group within Google tasked with making it easy, fast and free to leave any Google service.

“In most big companies what we’re doing is seen as revolutionary,” says Fitzpatrick.

The DLF is jokingly named for the Life of Brian scene, and for the radical idea of allowing people to walk away.

Part of the DLF’s aim is also to reassure people who may be uneasy with the idea of having their information out of reach on the internet. Mozy, a data backup provider that uses cloud computing technology to store people’s data, welcomes this approach.

“At the end of the day we believe it’s your data and you should have the right to always have it back. By choosing to sign up with a single service provider, you shouldn’t lose any right over that data,” says Russ Stockdale, Mozy’s chief marketing officer.

Social networks are obvious candidates for such an opt-out feature but as yet few show signs of following Google’s example.

Flickr offers plenty of tips for uploading and sharing photos but its website is far more fuzzy on details about removing them.

A Facebook account can be deleted permanently but people can’t retrieve any of the content they added to the site while registered. The social networking site claims to receive very few requests from users to remove their data.

“Most people who wish – for whatever personal reasons they may have – to remove their information from Facebook take a brief pause by choosing to deactivate their accounts, and then eventually return to Facebook,” says a spokesperson.

Facebook says it is committed to open governance and claims to be the only major online service to solicit feedback from its users whenever it makes a proposed change to its governing documents. The company won’t say how many people have availed of the removal facility.

Google is similarly shy about the DLF, making it hard to tell whether people are leaving in droves or are largely happy to stay put. “It’s like a fire escape; people try it once and are satisfied that it works,” says Fitzpatrick.

Google openly hopes to prompt people to pause before they sign up to an online service, and think about what would happen if they decided to remove their data from it at some point in the future.

The Data Protection Commissioner’s office can’t be seen to endorse the approach of any one company but a spokesman says it favours the idea of enabling people to exercise control over how their personal data is used.

Some online comment suggests the DLF represents a stalking horse, intended to provoke a wider debate about open and closed systems on the internet. Others say it’s a good marketing move that dovetails with Google’s “do no evil” ethos.

One former Microsoft executive still working in the internet sector believes the DLF’s name begs another question – where is data to be “liberated” from anyway? He suggests Google’s real target is Microsoft.

Unquestionably, Google is making a serious play in the business productivity applications market. In the process it is planting a flag firmly in the territory held by the world’s biggest software company. Another obvious target are the social networks. Google runs Picasa, a rival to Flickr, while its Buzz product was seen as an attempt to muscle in on Facebook’s territory.

Dr Norman Lewis, chief innovation officer with Open Knowledge UK, believes we need to set aside the preconceptions about Google, which can often cast the company as a big, evil corporation.

Lewis, who blogs about the social impact of the internet, says Google staff are “genuinely motivated by their real belief that they want to bring these best services to the world. From that point of view, I’m willing to give them the balance of doubt.

“If you look strategically at what they’re doing and what the Data Liberation Front represents, I think it’s a pretty smart move and a strategic one as well. What Schmidt is saying is that if you think Google has done something that is off the scale and has made you lose your trust, you should be able to take your data.”

In fairness, Google is upfront about its motivation. “We’re not open because we’re altruistic, we do it because we benefit from doing it. Honestly, it’s for the long term,” says Fitzpatrick.

He argues that providing open products leads to more innovation whereas closed systems lead to stagnation. True, Google recently ranked second among the world’s 50 most innovative companies as rated by Business Week. But it lost top spot to Apple which famously and very profitably makes a virtue of its proprietary technology.

The suspicion remains that the data liberation debate might get some geeks into a lather but will leave the wider online population unmoved. Closing in on 500 million users, Facebook has a population greater than all but three countries in the entire world. It’s an issue which affects a lot of people.

Dr Lewis believes people should care about this. “If you think about the future of your digital existence, whether it is Google, Amazon or a telco, the question of control over and ownership of that data and who has the chance to monetise that is going to be a battleground of the future. I think it’s a hugely complex question. It’s not just a technology question, but a broader political and social one.

“In this digital space the ethics and broader philosophical questions are still playing catch-up with the technology. Credit to Google in that respect, for at least seriously trying to address this in a way that can have major consequences for the future – for them as a service and for consumers.”