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Google's Open Source Data Transfer Project Promises Portability



De Silva

It’s an impressive step forward but seems to ignore the major concerns of the last few years: privacy and security.

One proposed advantage of blockchain technology is the opportunity for consumers to privately control their own data. That's an immensely powerful idea, especially in the age of information. What if a person were able to confirm his/her identity or credit history without a firm explicitly knowing what that data says (or what went into its creation)? How can we access digital services without giving away a piece of our identity every time? Is this even attainable? Are we simply too late?

If a person takes a sip of water from a drinking fountain, the device doesn't capture his/her fingerprints and DNA (at least, we don't live in that Orwellian state quite yet). But, somehow, we have normalized very different standards for our online interactions. This isn't meant to be a diatribe against centralized technological services, which have provided immeasurable value to society. It's more of a question: What are the right values to build around? And can we do this better?

Overcoming ideological divides won't be easy, but the beauty of the internet is that we can create small silos for each mode of thought, and hopefully encourage interaction between these communities without forcing them to sacrifice their ideals.

Creating privacy-preserving standards won't be easy – in fact, for a lack of coordination, it may never happen. That's not to say that we shouldn't try something different. Why be satisfied with the Equifax breach or the Facebook fiasco? While we might not be able to rein everything in, perhaps we could at least provide some direction to this unrestrained chaos.

On Friday, Google introduced the Data Transfer Project, an "open source platform promoting universal data portability." The initiative was joined by other technology giants such as Microsoft, Twitter, and Facebook. It's actually fascinating to see the slight differences in marketing lingo between the services.

For instance, Twitter's post was entitled "Putting people first on data portability," whereas Facebook's championed "Working Together to Give People More Control of Their Data." It subtly seems to reflect the different impetus behind each company.

The project strives to allow users to transfer their data between services. One use case proposed in the project's white paper (yes, white papers exist outside of ICOs) is moving photos from an existing platform to a new service:

"A user discovers a new photo printing service offering beautiful and innovative photo book formats, but their photos are stored in their social media account. With the Data Transfer 5 Project, they could visit a website or app offered by the photo printing service and initiate a transfer directly from their social media platform to the photo book service."

Another suggested use case is changing music providers because of what seems to be an ethical complaint:

"A user doesn't agree with the privacy policy of their music service. They want to stop using it immediately, but don't want to lose the playlists they have created. Using this open-source software, they could use the export functionality of the original provider to save a copy of their playlists to the cloud. This enables them to import the playlists to a new provider, or multiple providers, once they decide on a new service."

To be clear, this is an amazing project. When one thinks about how users have become content creators, the Data Transfer Project could create a massive shift in the corporation-consumer power dynamic. And, it's easy to imagine how this could lead to greater scientific achievements, greater business advances, and superior user experiences overall.

Critically, we must consider how this project could reshape interactions between users and enterprises. Could this become a new standard across industries? Would customers not join a service if it lacks this data portability? As one writer noted, there's a fruit-sized hole in the initiative's membership: Apple – although that's probably not too surprising given the company's entire design ethos. (Apple devices are notoriously as impenetrable as PCs are easily accessible.)

Altogether though we mustn't make any mistake: the Data Transfer Project does not address the fundamental privacy issues that have reared their ugly heads in the last few years. As the white paper states, "It is worth noting that the Data Transfer Project doesn't include any automated deletion architecture. Once a user has verified that the desired data is migrated, they would have to delete their data from their original service using that service's deletion tool if they wanted the data deleted."

Maybe repossessing data is like grasping sand in one's fist. The harder one clenches, the more seems to escape. Still, a partnership of this magnitude could profoundly shape our online interactions and it's important to give airtime to alternatives. Sure, blockchain has its limitations, but as we consider the values that we are building around, we must recognize when we, ourselves, continue to be the products.

Matthew De Silva

Matthew has a passion for law and technology. He graduated from Georgetown University, where he studied international economics and music. Matthew enjoys biking and listening to tech podcasts. He lives in Los Angeles.

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