Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley may finally be on the same page as the big technology companies he has criticized since arriving in Washington.
He and Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, who has sparred with the freshman Republican over other issues, appear to agree in principle that consumers should be able to transfer personal data easily from one platform to another.
Last week, Hawley and two Democratic senators, Virginia’s Mark Warner and Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal, introduced the ACCESS Act, an acronym for Augmenting Compatibility and Competition by Enabling Service Switching.
“Your data is your property, period,” Hawley said in a news release announcing the bill. “Consumers should have the flexibility to choose new online platforms without artificial barriers to entry.”
That doesn’t sound much different from something Zuckerberg wrote in March. “If you share data with one service, you should be able to move it to another,” he said in an opinion piece.
Facebook followed up last month with a data portability white paper, and is working with Google, Microsoft, Twitter and Apple on something called the Data Transfer Project.
Some experts believe the ACCESS Act would end the monopoly-like control that tech companies have over their users. “For sure it will encourage competition among large established firms,” says Robert Seamans, associate professor of management at New York University.
Seamans also envisions the bill making it easier to transfer data to innovative social media startups, who would be exempt from the portability requirements until they reached 100 million active users.
Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, disagrees. He thinks a portability law would discourage the most ambitious startups, because if they ever grew large enough to compete with Facebook and Google they’d have to share data with the very companies they were trying to disrupt.
Even if tech companies accept portability in principle, they may disagree with lawmakers on just how to define personal data.
It’s easy to say that your profile information and personal photos should be portable, but what about photos in which you’ve tagged a friend? Moving that data to a new site would violate the friend’s privacy.
The tech platforms could assert that they have a proprietary interest in some data, such as information about which ads you click on or which products you buy. It’s your data in a sense, but it’s also their bread and butter, and they won’t want to share it with competitors.
“My guess would be that organizations that advocate in favor of consumers will say there should be a broader definition, while the tech companies themselves will want a much narrower definition,” Seamans said.
Castro fears that if the rules aren’t written carefully, they could make it easier for bad actors to gain access to user data.
“The ability of platforms to curate the user experience and respond to problems like harassment, fake news and bots could be severely compromised,” he said.
In truth, portability seems like a low priority for consumers. Most of us are more concerned about online privacy and whether companies are being transparent about how they use our data.
Hawley has challenged the technology giants on several fronts, sponsoring or co-sponsoring bills that would ban “addictive” features of social media and crack down on a perceived bias against conservatives.
His latest bill looks less confrontational, but he’s still likely to face pushback when it comes time to debate the details of data portability.