Google's data activist comes down under

Brian Fitzpatrick, founder of Google's Data Liberation Front landed down under yesterday, and wasted no time getting to work preaching the need for companies to be open with customer data. Or else.
Written by Luke Hopewell, Contributor

Brian Fitzpatrick, founder of Google's Data Liberation Front, landed down under yesterday, and wasted no time getting to work preaching the need for companies to be open with customer data. Or else.


Brian Fitzpatrick (Credit: Google)

Fitzpatrick, a self-described ageing techno-hippie and Google engineer is the brain behind the Data Liberation Front (DLF).

The DLF works to ensure that users can, whenever they want, remove their data from any Google product quickly and easily to ensure complete data ownership at all times.

Fitzpatrick said that the idea behind the DLF is to live the company's "Do No Evil" mantra and to build trust within the user base. Fitzpatrick is the first to admit, it's sadly out of the norm for a big company to undertake such a project.

"We're doing something that most companies don't do," he said.

"We're about putting a big [import/export] button on all of our products. Every product should have a way of getting your data out," he added.

Fitzpatrick said that locking users into a cloud product, whether consumer or business, is the wrong way to go about keeping customers.

"Internet users are getting faster and faster at adopting new technology. If you lock users in, they'll eventually break through a window," he said. He compared data lock-in to a scenario where one might rent an apartment, follow through on the lease but are not allowed to leave with any of the furniture you moved in with.

Owning up

Fitzpatrick said that the proliferation of easy-to-use cloud storage and service products has lead to a scenario where user data has become locked into private providers all over the internet.

He said that due to the rise and popularity of these services, people had sacrificed the ownership over their own data for a little bit of convenience, and it's time to take it back.

"People gave up control [of their own data] for many years when dealing with big companies. It's what they had to do to play the game. The internet has always been about inversion of control. People are now trying to pull their data back in," he warned.

He had originally intended for data liberation to be more like a parachute or set of emergency stairs in a tall building — something that users only take advantage of when they need it. Over time, however, Fitzpatrick noticed that people were liberating their data on a weekly basis while continuing to use the original product. That, he said, speaks to people's desire to take back their own data.

"People ended up using it just as a backup. People felt more comfortable having a copy right there on their computer, as opposed to somewhere in the cloud," he said.

And because the Data Liberation Front isn't overtly branded with Google logos, users have been requesting that Fitzpatrick's team take liberated data from competitive products.

"We just want people to think about their data and how it can be liberated. People can request things to be liberated [from Google products] and a lot of people request competitors' sites to be open, which, obviously, we can't do," he said.

Instead, Fitzpatrick preaches to colleagues in rival company camps about the need to be open when it comes to data ownership, saying that he's even happy for them to use tools he and his team developed under an open-source licence.

"The interesting thing about the software business is that it's a small world. I don't know folks at the executive level, but I do encourage other people in other companies [to adopt these principles] … if it was useful for them, we would let other companies take our code to use," he said.

The principle aim of the Data Liberation Front is to give control of data back to users, so that they can switch whenever they want. While it may seem counter-intuitive for an enterprise to make it easy to leave, Fitzpatrick said it in fact keeps users with the company longer, because they have greater trust in an organisation that preaches openness. He added that because users can switch brands and products so easily these days, it meant that Google needed to innovate quicker to keep customers in.

"I was told to focus on the user: to focus on how they can have control of their data and what they can do with it. It's a way of encouraging us to innovate as fast as we can. That's how we can keep users in," he said.

"If we can improve the web, it may improve things for the competitors but it also lifts us. A rising tide lifts all boats," he added.

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