Senators Introduce Data Portability Legislation (Which Is More Exciting Than It Sounds, I Swear)

Richard Blumenthal Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Yesterday, the Senate finally introduced tech legislation that I would say is unequivocally good. Unlike measures to, for instance, ban infinite scrolling, I think this new stuff would actually do something. I’m talking about the Augmenting Compatibility and Competition by Enabling Service Switching (ACCESS) Act, which was introduced by Senators Mark Warner, Richard Blumenthal, and Josh Hawley.

Currently, most large platforms allow users to export their data. They can download a big (and often terrifyingly detailed) zip file full of images and messages and status updates that they’ve thrown onto platforms over the years. This is largely a result of the E.U.’s GDPR regulations that give users more control over their data.

Exportability is really the bare minimum. The ACCESS Act would require large tech platforms (defined as those with more than 100 million monthly users, which would include every major tech platform and any operating at a scale capable of monetizing user data) that monetize user data to make it easy and painless for a user to not only export their data, but import it to a competing platform (e.g., moving photo uploads from Instagram to … uh, some other photo service).

From the very top of the bill:

A large communications platform provider shall, for each large communications platform it operates, maintain a set of transparent, third-party-accessible interfaces (including application programming interfaces) to initiate the secure transfer of user data to a user, or to a competing communications provider acting at the direction of a user, in a structured, commonly used, and machine-readable format.

Great. There are a couple of key terms in here. “Application programming interfaces,” otherwise known as APIs, refers to a suite of tools that allow third-party developers to interact with a platform. For instance, the Twitter API is what allows users to post content from places besides Twitter’s official software. For instance, when you automatically tweet a link to your newest Instagram post using Instagram’s interface, that functionality is enabled by Twitter’s API. Many large tech companies have robust APIs for feeding data into their services, but they usually have far less capable ways of helping users extract data. Some of this is related to privacy, but a lot of it is related to control — data is worth more if it isn’t widely available. What the ACCESS Act does here is require large platforms to build tools so that people can automate the extraction of their data.

The other term that sticks out here is “machine-readable format.” This is what lets you take data from one platform and drop it easily onto another. Many of the data-export tools offered currently are not machine-readable. If I export my Facebook data, it’ll give me a big text list of my friends. I can’t just paste that list onto another social network and instantly have a full friends list; I’d have to search for them one by one and add them. Requiring data to be machine-readable makes moving from one service to another much less arduous, and requires a lot less manual labor.

These measures would significantly reduce lock-in. The best example of lock-in is Facebook, a social network with a dubious public image that people begrudgingly continue to use because not only are all of their friends already there, but their personal history is there, too — they’ve spent years essentially inputting a trove of data too difficult to reconstruct from scratch.

There is some precedent for this, in regulations that allow phone customers to port their number from one service to another. With landlines, moving to a new location required a new phone number, but as mobile phones became popular, it became more important for consumers to be able to keep the same number as they moved around. In 1996, the U.S. government mandated number portability, which let users switch between competing providers easily, and without having to inform everyone they know that their number was changing yet again.

“As a former cell phone guy, I saw what a game changer number portability was for that industry,” Senator Warner said in a statement. “By making it easier for social media users to easily move their data or to continue to communicate with their friends after switching platforms, startups will be able to compete on equal terms with the biggest social media companies”

There are known unknowns regarding this legislation. For one thing, mandating data portability requires standards. Standards are what allow tech to be interoperable. There’s the phone-number standard, which allows my Verizon phone to call an AT&T number. There’s the USB standard, which is why you can move flash drives between computers. There’s the HTML standard, which is why you can load a site in Firefox or Chrome or Safari. There are all sorts of standards. But there is currently no standard for how social media data should be formatted so that it can move between platforms.

There are also clear privacy concerns with moving data between platforms. Facebook’s API is what started the Cambridge Analytica scandal in the first place. The dilemma is that data can’t be ported from one platform to another if these APIs don’t exist. Really, what we need in addition to data-portability regulations are stronger European-style privacy regulations, too.

I’m getting ahead of myself though. This isn’t even law and it may never be, assuming that incumbent tech companies lobby heavily against it. To my mind though, short of actively breaking up larger tech companies through adversarial regulatory action, this is the best way to reduce the stranglehold of Big Tech: making it easier to go literally anywhere else.

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