Why is Facebook Pushing for Data Portability?

Last Friday, Facebook, Inc. called for legislation that would make it easier for users to move images and videos to a competing tech site, in comments to the Federal Trade Commission ahead of a September 22nd antitrust hearing on the issue of data portability. Data portability is seen as a possible solution for big technology firms whose ownership over multiple tech markets makes it more difficult for smaller competitors to get started. 

The issue of data portability and ensuring consumers’ data remains private has been a central part of the antitrust debate in the United States and Europe. The right to data portability is explicitly stated in both the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). However, the question is: Why is Facebook pushing for data portability when they themselves are attempting to keep their monopoly intact?

But first, what is data portability? According to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), data portability “allows individuals to obtain and reuse their personal data for their own purposes across different services. It allows them to move, copy or transfer personal data easily from one IT environment to another in a safe and secure way, without affecting its usability.”

Giving people the rights to data portability enables individuals to take advantage of applications and services that can use this data to find them a better deal or help them understand their spending habits. It’s unlikely Facebook is interested in actually allowing their users to move their data from the US and EU, but they are interested in how their reputation and techniques for data portability come across under little to no regulation.

In April, Facebook allowed users in the US and Canada to move images and videos to Alphabet-owned Google Photos for the first time. Did Facebook want to share all of that data with a direct data-collecting competitor? Probably not, but it is a necessary step to help the company respond to US regulators and lawmakers who are investigating its business practices and complaints that it has stifled competition or acted like a monopoly. 

Bijan Madhani, privacy and public policy manager at Facebook, told Reuters: “Facebook is seeking regulatory guidance, in the form of an independent body or regulator, in answering policy questions and helping them address liability issues tied to portability.” Facebook is looking for guidance on data portability so they don’t make a mistake transferring or moving users’ data, or they are looking for a way to stay a step ahead of the regulations to ensure that their massive trove of user data is not affected in any way by data portability. 

Regardless of their intentions, pushing for more regulation and transparency when deciding to transfer or move your data is not a bad thing. Data portability is an integral part of two of the largest data privacy laws in the world; having it be defined more clearly will not only help companies trying to transfer user data, but consumers will feel safer knowing there are privacy  protections in place.