New Data Portability Tools Get Us Closer to Leaving Facebook the Website, but Not Facebook the Borg

New Data Portability Tools Get Us Closer to Leaving Facebook the Website, but Not Facebook the Borg
Photo: Alastair Pike, Getty Images

If you’re morbidly curious about the reams of data Facebook collects on you, then good news: earlier today, Facebook announced that users could now move their data to two more destinations with the help of the company’s Transfer Your Information (TYI) Tool. Starting today, the company said, you can now move your pics to the photo-hosting site Photobucket, and any of your Facebook event listings to Google Calendar.

“To provide people with choice and control over their data, we’ve spent the last few months rebuilding our data portability tool from the ground up,” said Facebook Product Manager Hadi Michel in a blog post detailing the announcement. On top of these new data destinations, Michel added, Facebook also revamped its TYI interface to be “simpler and more intuitive”: now, people can easily see which data formats are supported by which destinations. The new layout is also designed to make it easier for users to check up on the status of their individual transfers, and retry them in cases where they don’t go through.

“At Facebook, we plan to continue providing our users with secure data portability features they can trust,” Michel went on. “We’re also working with developers to expand the selection of data types and destinations we support.”

Considering Facebook’s usual attitude when it comes to our data, this update is downright charitable. Facebook, as a company, has nothing less than a steely grip on just about all of our personal details, using everything from our income to our level of education to pummel us with targeted ads. Being able to take back at least some of that data feels like a step in the right direction. Looking a bit closer though, it becomes clear that Facebook still has a long, long way to go.

In a nutshell, data portability means exactly what it sounds like: giving users the freedom to download their data from one platform and upload it onto another. That requirement’s been a part of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) since 2018. In the aftermath of that law going into effect abroad, we’ve seen US lawmakers pitch their own take on a stateside data portability law, not to mention some serious interest from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and Biden himself.

And it’s not hard to see why — in theory, data portability doesn’t only give users the power to handle their data on their own terms, but it also lets them chip away at Facebook’s obscene monopoly on the social media market writ large. If a few members of the Ant People Facebook group want to haul off to a smaller social media startup to, uh, start a new group with new Ant Folks, that startup’s userbase grows. Social connections bloom and branch out. Facebook gets competition.

In spite of how shitty that all sounds for Facebook, the company’s gone all-in with pro-portability proposals. In a 2019 Washington Post op-ed, Zuckerberg wrote that any airtight regulation should guarantee some degree of data portability.

“True data portability should look more like the way people use our platform to sign into an app than the existing ways you can download an archive of your information,” he said. “But this requires clear rules about who’s responsible for protecting information when it moves between services.”

Zuck’s continued advocating for concrete US data-porting laws in the years since, all the while expanding its tools allowing users to do just that. Last summer, the company gave Facebookers across the globe the power to transfer their selfies and cat pics from Facebook straight to Google Photos. This past April, Facebook expanded this tool to let users take their text posts, notes, and ramblings from their Facebook page onto Blogger, Google Docs, and WordPress. Then today, we got Photobucket and Google Calendar. And if today’s blog post is to be believed, these won’t be the last integrations Facebook’s going to be plugging into its platform. From a privacy (and competition!) point of view, it all sounds pretty darn great — especially coming from a company like Facebook. But there’s still a lot of work to do.

While the data portability ideal that a lot of us have been sold on is one that would actually let us finally, mercifully, pack up and quit Facebook for good, Facebook’s TYI tool doesn’t address some of the platform’s larger data-hoovering offences. Even if you’ve never used a Facebook product in your life, the company will continue to track you across the vast majority of third-party apps and sites you’re using anyway. And because Facebook’s still reliably tracking and targeting you, it’s not too likely that advertisers currently reliant on Facebook will see any reason to put their money elsewhere.

As we saw with the lacklustre Facebook ad boycott from last summer, most of the company’s business partners are either unwilling or just unable to take the risk that comes with marketing on a new platform. So even if we all grab our data and bounce, there’s a good chance Facebook’s still getting paid. Still, weakening Facebook’s user base is the only way to make it less attractive to partners.

Next, there are the data-porting tools themselves. Even if you ignore how unintuitive it is, it’s only designed to address certain kinds of data Facebook collects on each of us: photos of our kids, rants we post on our feed at 3 AM, or parties we forget to go to. These data points might feel like an intimate part of who we are, but they’re not worth much compared to some of the other data Facebook has on you — particularly the platform’s social graph, which it uses to track who you know, who they know, and so on.

This vast web of social connections is the secret sauce that lets Facebook creepily recommend you be friends with some guy you sat next to in your Spanish class. Aside from helping you find old friends you’ve lost touch with, this social graph also forms the backbone of some of Facebook’s core ad-targeting tech. The platform uses your reaction to any given ad to influence the ads seen by your roommates, your parents, your neighbours — or whoever else the social graph has you connected with.

Facebook knows that those social ties have a ton of financial value to marketers (and competitors), which is why it closed off any portability with its social graph back in 2013. Some economists have floated the idea that a more powerful way to kickstart competition would be introducing some way for users to download this social data off of Facebook and haul it elsewhere. Facebook’s fired back that porting out a person’s entire social history wouldn’t do anything but cause countless privacy breaches for users the world over.

It’s a fair point to make, and one without an easy answer — at least not yet. As more than a few policy wonks have pointed out, the data from all of our social graphs are stored in Facebook’s systems in a format that only Facebook knows how to read. The closest thing you or I could export off Facebook is a plaintext list laying out the names and dates of each Facebook connection, and take that list to a new up-and-coming or established platform. But as Techcrunch wrote back in 2018, this isn’t always enough to find people you know. If you’ve got a pal with a super generic name (like “John Smith”) you’re going to be sifting through a lot of similarly-named people until you find that person off of Facebook.

If the company’s serious about wanting to embrace portability, The EFF, Mozilla, and plenty of others have floated ideas for where it can start. New Facebook friends can automatically (and consensually) share encrypted contact info between the both of them, and that data can be decrypted once either of them takes it to an off-Facebook platform, for example. Or Facebook can combine TYI with data-downloading tools from platforms like YouTube or TikTok.

These ideas aren’t perfect, but neither is what we’re left with right now: a social network where none of us can ever truly quit for good because Facebook’s spent the better part of its history slowly creeping into pretty much every site on the web and most of the apps we all use. And all the while, it’s promising us that this is what we wanted all along.