Facebook beware? EU antitrust chief warns over data portability

EU competition commissioner Joaquin Almunia has warned that, while his department has never had to crack down on a company for making it difficult for customers to take their personal data to a rival service, he thinks the issue could one day come up against antitrust law.

Online service providers could find themselves falling foul of antitrust law if they stop their customers from easily and cheaply moving their personal data to rival services, the EU's competition commissioner has warned.

In a speech on Monday, Joaquin Almunia said his department had not yet had to deal with cases revolving around personal data and privacy. However, referring to one of the European Commission's proposed changes to the 1995 Data Protection Directive , he said the so-called right of portability "goes to the heart of competition policy".

"I believe that a healthy competitive environment in these markets requires that consumers can easily and cheaply transfer the data they uploaded in a service onto another service," Almunia said. "In those markets that build on users uploading their personal data or their personal content, retention of these data should not serve as barriers to switching."

Who might he be referring to?

The commissioner did not name any names in his speech, nor did he specify search or social networks, but Facebook and Google are the best-known and mostly widely used services that rely on customers uploading their personal data.

While Google has come in for criticism by the Commission over its data policies , the company is at least very amenable to letting customers export all their data in an easy-to-read format — a concept Google half-jokingly calls 'data liberation'.

Facebook, on the other hand, does not make it possible to download all one's personal data from the service. Earlier this year, activists in Europe succeeded in forcing the social network to make more data downloadable than was previously the case, but the list of what can be extracted from the site is far from comprehensive. Additionally, the extracted data is not in any format that can be easily inserted into another social network.

In the end, neither Facebook nor Google really offers a simple way to transfer data to a rival service — for example, leaving Facebook for Google+ would require either a large amount of time and effort, or simply leaving the old Facebook data behind.

"A sensible treatment of personal data will allow us to benefit from better services targeted to our preferences and needs," Almunia said on Monday. "But the line between the sensible use and the abuse of this kind of information is very thin. New problems will probably appear and become systemic."

"There is clearly a trade-off here between risks and benefits. Is it wise to leave the search for the right balance to the individual? Can the market strike the right balance? Or perhaps it is better — and safer — to look for stronger regulatory solutions? I will leave these difficult questions open to debate."