Facebook Takes Additional Steps to Address Data Concerns

Facebook vice president of global affairs Nick Clegg warned antitrust regulators that data is not a simple resource that can be easily monopolized but a more complicated commodity that can be shared and kept simultaneously. He urged officials to “relinquish” the idea that data is a finite resource that can be used in finite ways. Facebook and Google are facing scrutiny by the U.S. Justice Department, Federal Trade Commission and European Commission. Meanwhile, Facebook is also testing a data portability tool.

The Wall Street Journal reports that, according to sources, “as part of those wide-ranging probes, investigators have sent out questionnaires to Google and Facebook competitors and business partners, such as advertising agencies, publishers and app developers.” Clegg commented on Monday that, “new rules imposed by democratic governments could help the social media sector to restore its image, which has been hurt by scandals.”

Whereas Facebook and Google have said they are implementing stricter privacy controls to adhere to the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), those companies’ smaller competitors complain the result is that the two companies are cutting back on “how they share data,” making it harder for them to compete in online advertising.

A joint project including Apple, Microsoft and Twitter among other tech companies to allow users to move their data around is on the cusp of its first product release. Facebook will unveil a tool that allows users to “export their photos directly to Google’s photo-sharing platform, without needing first to download and upload those pictures.” The tool will first launch in Ireland and go global in 2020.

Data portability is one of the chief concerns of GDPR and a new California privacy law. Still, Agustin Reyna, head of legal and economic affairs at BEUC, an EU consumer rights group said Facebook’s announcement “falls short of creating the conditions for a more competitive social network market … [and called the new tool] a half-baked solution which will not make a significant change in the way people engage with social networks.”

The New York Times reports that, after announcing the data portability tool, “critics immediately said the initiative did not go far enough,” despite the fact that Facebook said it plans to expand the program to other photo services besides Google and in other parts of the world by June next year.

The company said the tool “was a result of discussions with officials in countries including Brazil, Britain, Germany and Singapore.” Google, meanwhile, noted that it has offered data portability tools since 2007 and had a founding role in “the Data Transfer Project, which enables direct platform-to-platform portability.”

Among the critics of Facebook’s photo portability tool, University College London lecturer Michael Veale said, “a better way to encourage competition would be to allow non-Facebook users to interact with those who were on the social network, for actions like messaging and organizing events.”

Tilburg University assistant professor Martin Husovec, who has written about data portability, noted that, “if you force a company to share the information, perhaps you reduce the competitive advantage and level the playing field.”