Facebook’s Dilemma: Achieving Data Portability and Privacy

Facebook is trying to make good on two key promises: to protect users’ privacy and to allow them to move their data elsewhere. But the two goals may not be compatible, and Facebook is looking outside the company to get ideas on how to deliver both. The European Union and California passed laws that require Facebook to make users’ social media profiles easy to move to a competing platform. At the same time, Facebook agreed to enforce data protections as part of a $5 billion settlement with the Federal Trade Commission.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Facebook privacy and public policy director Stephen Satterfield said “there still hasn’t been a lot of guidance” on how to achieve both goals, with a recent white paper as “the company’s opening attempt at hashing out unresolved trade-offs between privacy and openness.”

For example, since 2010, Facebook has allowed users to transfer the photos they upload. But, “whether friends’ contact information or their comments on posts should also be portable are separate matters — and ones that Facebook hasn’t yet taken positions on.”

Facebook has also stated that it wants input from regulators and other tech companies on issues related to “how to handle the privacy risks created by allowing data to leave its platform.” Their white paper pointed out that, “whether an outside entity is a worthy recipient of user data and who should be responsible for potential misuse of Facebook data after it is in that entity’s hands aren’t clear.”

Those who advocate more competition in social media — such as Yale economist Fiona Scott Morton — want Facebook to “make its platforms mesh with competitors, not just provide a one-time transfer of users’ data.” But Morton “predicted that Facebook would object to such a plan for competitive reasons, not technical obstacles.”

Meshing technologies would allow people to “maintain their Facebook social networks while experimenting with alternative social-media platforms that, for example, shared ad revenue with their customers or offered an ad-free experience for $1 a month.”

Facebook’s white paper only briefly mentioned full interoperability and “not in an overly positive light,” suggesting that it “would force [the company] to re-create the open-access conditions” that led to the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Morton disagreed, saying the lesson from Cambridge Analytica is that “letting a quiz application have all the data of your users is a mistake.” Satterfield pointed out that Facebook is “already working with tech companies including Alphabet’s Google, Apple and Microsoft on an industry framework for interoperable platforms.”

“We’re going to move forward with portability,” Satterfield added, saying that Facebook will hold events worldwide on the issues raised in the white paper. “We’re not going to be able to build portability to the extent we’d like to unless we as an industry can resolve these questions.”