Facebook lets users download data, create groups

Mark Zuckerberg said the changes are intended to give users 'more precise controls' over their personal data, but an industry alliance says they do not constitute true data portability
Written by David Meyer, Contributor on

Facebook has started rolling out a new feature that lets its users download their profiles.

The ability to scrape one's own wall posts, messages, photos, status updates and other profile information was announced on Wednesday by Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg. At the same time, the social-networking company launched a new privacy dashboard to provide a clearer picture of how third-party sites use Facebook customers' data.

Along with another new ability — to create groups of friends, making it possible to limit some information to selected friends — Zuckerberg said the new tools were designed to address demand for "more control over what you share on Facebook, to manage exactly who sees it and to understand exactly where it goes".

"With this new Groups experience and the other tools we're rolling out today, we're taking a few important steps forward towards giving you precise controls," Zuckerberg said in a blog post. "We hope these tools bring you more confidence as you share things on Facebook."

People will be able to go to their account settings and click a link to download all their data into a browsable zip file. According to Zuckerberg, this and the other new features started rolling out to users on Wednesday evening.

However, DataPortability — an industry alliance which Google and Facebook joined on its 2008 formation — said on Wednesday that Facebook's move to allow profile downloading was a step in the right direction but did not amount to proper data portability.

"What matters is that while they now allow more access to your data through the download feature, the Facebook [terms of service have] not changed — meaning your data is still on their server and while you can download, you cannot remove your data entirely (if you wished to do so). This is data accessibility, not data portability," wrote DataPortability's communications chair, Alisa Leonard, in a blog post.

In May, Facebook came under fire from European data protection advisers after it made some of its users' data public without their express permission. The social-networking company subsequently made major changes to its member privacy controls. That was followed in July by the launch of a formal investigation by German data protection officials into the amount of data stored by Facebook.

The security company Sophos also said on Thursday that Facebook's privacy dashboard changes could add complexity, rather than improving online safety.

"Adding more security-related dashboards, buttons and knobs is a start, I guess," Paul Ducklin, Sophos's head of technology for the Asia Pacific region, said in a statement. "But I, and many others, think that Facebook would do better to make a real grassroots change to its security."

Ducklin said Facebook should adopt a model where each user has to consciously opt into each of the social network's features, rather than having to opt out as they do now.

"No doubt Facebook shareholders looking forward to the IPO [initial public offering] will want to maximise the number of users and the openness and availability of the information posted," Ducklin said. "But Facebook is influential enough now, I reckon, to make bigger long-term gains by getting ahead of the regulatory curve than by waiting until legislators force them to change [its] opt-in/opt-out attitudes."

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