White House asks: Do you need more data portability?

Credit: Reuters

Security v. convenience? White House wonders how much data portability is enough?

It’s a question of who controls your data – all of it. Think of all the data that say Apple, Google or Facebook or even your health care provider has collected on you and you wanted to remove it or move it elsewhere. It wouldn’t be easy.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has issued a request for information about how much is too much or too little data portability and what are the implications?

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“Permitting service providers to store and manage personal data has proven popular because it is enormously convenient and enables companies to make many services better. Data portability should allow us to enjoy the convenience of keeping our data online, and the ability to gain access to it and use it how we wish, wrote Alexander Macgillivray, Deputy Chief Technology Officer of the United States in the Office of Science and Technology Policy in an OSTP blog. “Indeed, while many private services have embraced data portability, there are still many that have not, including entire industries for which the concept remains alien. There are also some domains where some form of data portability is required by law or regulation, such as for health or certain federal government records, but there are many others where data portability is not required under U.S. law.”

The OSTP request is focused on five questions it hopes the public and private sector can answer, including:

  • What are the potential benefits and drawbacks of increased data portability?
  • What industries or types of data that would most benefit or be harmed by increased data portability?
  • What are specific steps the Federal Government, private companies, associations, or others might take to encourage or require greater data portability (and the important benefits or drawbacks of each approach)?
  • What are best practices in implementing data portability?
  • Is there any additional information related to data portability policy making, not requested above, that you believe OSTP should consider with respect to data portability?

Proponents of increased data portability say for users, perhaps the most important benefits are the ability to create backups of their most important data, like photographs, tax returns, and other financial information, and reducing the danger of becoming locked-in to a single service, especially in a world where service providers may change business models or discontinue products, Macgillivray wrote.

“Consumers may also benefit from increased competition. If consumers cannot switch easily between platforms, it may be difficult for would-be services to enter the market, resulting in less innovation or higher prices. Increasing data portability may induce businesses to compete with one another to offer better prices and higher quality services to win or retain a customer’s business. Service providers, meanwhile, may benefit from offering data portability to increase user trust through the transparency and ease of switching data portability provides, and help manage the termination of services. Finally, the public benefits when data portability provides a greater sense of accountability and promotes transparency as to what information stored provider is storing,” he wrote.

However, with lower switching costs, businesses might adjust their business models and become more selective in their initial customer acquisition strategy or invest less in their customer relationships, which might leave some sets of customers worse off than before, Macgillivray wrote. Some privacy and security advocates also worry that the strength of data portability – easier sharing of information – could encourage more information sharing, including when it might be inadvisable from a privacy perspective or when a criminal successfully breaks into an unsecured service.

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