Forcing tech giants to share data not the way to go

Data interoperability and portability could level the digital playing field for smaller firms

European  competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager in Brussels in July 2018. Photograph:  Getty Images

European competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager in Brussels in July 2018. Photograph: Getty Images

 

 “Force tech giants to share data rather than break them up (https://iti.ms/2ID4ElB)” stated the headline on a Reuters story this month, immediately causing exasperation among many data privacy advocates.

The report, reduced down to a tweeted headline, certainly seemed disconcerting. The last thing we need in a landscape of giant tech platforms eager to obtain and control as much of our personal data as possible, is a proposal to require them to also share all that data, thus dispersing our digital information more widely across additional platforms.

Even worse, a cursory glance at the piece revealed that the headline expressed the collective view of an advisory panel of three academics appointed a year ago (https://iti.ms/2IqKoEe) by European competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager.

Policy issues

She had wanted some experts to consider future competition and policy issues around digital companies and markets.

Reading down through the story though, it becomes apparent that what was being discussed was data interoperability and portability, not data sharing. That’s a critical difference.

Data sharing implies that data would be actively distributed across companies and platforms. Sign up for Facebook, and Google and Amazon and any number of other tech giants would be able to access your years of data shared to the Facebook platform, to supposedly create a level data distribution and access playing field.

That’s a dystopian novel in the making for some enterprising writer. But it isn’t what was being proposed.

Instead, as the full report (https://iti.ms/2ICnTvC) makes clear, the academic authors – professors Heike Schweitzer and Jacques Crémer, and assistant professor Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye – argue that data should be easily moveable between platforms (data portability) and should conform to technical protocols that would allow it to operate on multiple platforms (data interoperability).

This, they say, would help open up competition and remove the current high barriers that make it exceedingly difficult for new companies to enter the markets these huge digital platforms control.

Far from recommending that your data be passed around to all the big companies, the authors are saying you should have the right to pick up your data and move it to a competitor or a new young company, in the same way that you can move your existing mobile phone number to a different phone operator.

The dominant position of existing platforms is supported by the difficulty for users to go anywhere else – the “lock-in effect”. If you have years of posts, interactions, photos and messages on Facebook, leaving for an alternative (and there aren’t many options) means abandoning years of archives.

And while you, personally, might not care, what’s the point of going somewhere new if few of your friends want to join you, because they don’t want to lose all those pieces of their digital lives.

Cambridge Analytica scandal

That’s surely one reason why Facebook hung on to most users in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal – which did involve actual data sharing, of the worst sort. Those that did leave often moved to Instagram or WhatsApp – other platforms owned by Facebook. You can run, but you can’t hide.

The lock-in effect is there even when the big platforms try to compete with each other. Google’s ill-fated Google Plus couldn’t displace Facebook, or even find a role as a significant alternative.

The authors of the report think that if you had a right to pack up all your digital belongings and take them with you, then you might be more easily tempted by competitors. 

Data portability of the sort that would allow people to easily move between big platforms was originally intended to be an explicit part of GDPR, back when the regulation was first being drafted. So this isn’t a new idea, but the problem now is that the regulation as it ended up lacks a clearly defined right of this type.

“The GDPR can facilitate the switching between data-driven services, through data portability. However, this will also depend on how the right to data portability is interpreted and implemented,” the report cautions.

Still, they believe that “under the risk-based approach embodied in the GDPR, a more stringent data portability regime can be imposed on a dominant firm in order to overcome particularly pronounced lock-in effects”.

The authors also say greater regulation is needed to prevent large companies from acquiring small potential competitors, only to kill them off rather than develop them further.

Notably, they don’t advocate breaking up the big platform companies, a perspective that seems to have influenced Vestager who, to some surprise, voiced the same point at a number of recent events.

I’m not convinced on that point, though. How does a joined-up Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram offer benefits to users that outweigh data-gobbling risks?

How can tighter regulation in areas like data portability have any impact on the sprawling data-intake multiverse of companies owned by Google parent Alphabet?

Hopefully, this new report will prompt more debate around all of these important, contentious issues.

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