On data sharing

Over on the DataSharingSummit board on Facebook, which I ironically can’t show you because Facebook doesn’t allow for public data sharing, Marc Canter asked what rights we think end users should have. I replied as follows:

I think there’s a serious danger of overthinking the discussion. If we wanted to, there’s enough meat in this topic to keep us going for decades; surely the summit and surrounding discussions should be more productive than that?

From our perspective, which is heavily influenced by education and non profits, we’ve been talking about two main issues:

1. My freedom to take my data somewhere else at any time

2. My right to stop you from taking my data somewhere else at any time

Here in the UK, the second is particularly important if we’re dealing with networks that will be used with schools etc. The Data Protection Act has certain requirements that, currently, a lot of people disregard. (In addition to the usual issues of whether or not Myspace really makes a great teaching environment … which is a discussion for somewhere else.)

Commercial considerations affect both sets of rights; for example, I think it wouldn’t be a piece of cake to export this discussion somewhere other than Facebook, except by copying and pasting. At the same time, there’s very little to stop Facebook from highlighting this thread in a publicity document or selling data about DataSharingSummit participants.

I think a user should have full ownership over his or her data, and that social networks will inevitably evolve into a cloud of features and services that don’t behave in the walled-garden way we’re seeing now. In the first instance that means there should be generic, standardised ways to import and export data; in the second it means there need to be ways to *find* it across different services. (One bonus that a walled garden site like Facebook has is that you know all the data can be found with the Facebook search engine. Once people start moving it all over the place, the community becomes fuzzier.)

The right to not have your data exported is tricky, because that’s how a lot of networks make their money. I know of at least one that’s making not a small amount farming its data out to a marketing analysis firm, for example, which pays it handsomely for use as a test case.

Perhaps that’s a big question that needs answering: how do we make interoperability worth it for the existing networks, for whom the data they currently sit on is probably their main asset? Or are we confident enough that the smaller networks and network software are going to put enough pressure on them by themselves? Establishing these rights and standards isn’t going to mean much if 80% of user accounts don’t support them, except perhaps for the principle of the thing.

On the other hand, maybe that won’t matter as we move from social networks to collections of software that have social features.

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