As companies rush to express their support for openness by joining DataPortability.org (Microsoft is the latest), we need to ask ourselves: what's in it for them? For if data portability -- the ability for users to easily move their data from one site to another -- were to become a reality, it would fundamentally change the economics of the web. The huge amount of data about ourselves that we volunteer to Facebook, for example, is what the company then sells on to advertisers.
Kevin Alisson, writing in the Financial Times earlier this week, does a good job of explaining the tension between data portability and remaining competitive:
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, has frequently touted the company’s intimate knowledge of the web of social connections between its users – a series of links it refers to as the “social graph” – as a key competitive advantage. That advantage could be diminished if Facebook’s social graph is made available to outside websites.
Furthermore, removing the competitive advantage that incumbents hold through keeping user data under lock and key, could enable a lot more innovation, since users' social data, just like some of the underlying web technology, would become a commodity.
"...suddenly it would be possible for two people in a garage to create a website or application that can take advantage of [social connections] without having to invest in building up their own social network," Plaxo's John McCrea tells the FT.
The article then gives example of a travel site, which "could include a feature that would allow a user to broadcast information about an upcoming business trip to all of their friends, regardless of what social networks they belonged to."
But Facebook has joined Dataportability.org, right? Correct. But don't expect that to translate into real action anytime soon.
Although Facebook has assigned a representative to the DataPortability Workgroup, it appears to be adopting a wait-and-see approach... In response to written questions, a spokeswoman said that the company was “evaluating what [data portability] really means".