Keep data portable

Data portability is certainly not on most users’ priority list. It should be. We all routinely use devices and services from many different vendors.

Different devices tend to use distinctive, and competing, operating systems. In computers it could be Windows, Mac or Linux. As for cell phones, besides the basic ones like Apple OS, Symbian, BlackBerry and Android, there are hundreds of variations, since each vendor tries to put his or her own flavour atop the OS.


One way to escape the narrow confines of devices is to go to the Net. For example, if you use Hotmail, no matter which computer you access it from, it will function just as well. It is an application, but then, with its own set of problems. Even something as ubiquitous as e-mail is vendor-specific. Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail and Gmail are all different platforms, and have distinctive ways of storing your data. Then, there are various social networking sites, like Facebook and Orkut, which also store users’ data, as do photo-sharing sites like Flikcr and Picasa. All this adds up to a lot of data from one user, stored at different places.

When we talk of data portability, we are not referring to any hardware, say portable disk drives or pen drives that can physically move date from one device to another, or store it. Today, we are focusing on the ability of the people to control and freely use their personal information across various devices and the Internet.

In the context of cloud computing, open standards and privacy issues, data portability has become a standard term in the Internet industry. People should be able to control their identity, media and other forms of personal data. While the goal is easy to define, implementing it is not.

When we need to shift our data from one application to another, that’s when we find out whether the two applications can talk to each other or not. For a long time, it was not possible, unless a person was really a computer nerd, and that too one with extraordinary patience and persistence. However, things have been changing over time and nowadays, many sites take measures to ensure data portability.

Initially, it seemed that for many applications, data portability comprised the ability to transport data from any application to the one you were using presently. It became a one-way street. However, mounting customer protests, a changing environment, and the European Commission’s heavy hand are making true data portability happen, i.e., make it a two-way highway.

The absence of formal norms regarding data portability has been an issue of concern for both users, and even governments. The European Commission (EC) recently made public its concern about data protection and portability, especially in the context of the social networking sites and cloud computing, “as it may involve the loss of individuals’ control over their potentially sensitive information when they store their data with programs hosted on someone else’s hardware.”

Noting that risks to privacy and the protection of personal data associated with online activity are increasing, the EC said: “At the same time, ways of collecting personal data have become increasingly elaborated and less easily detectable. For example, the use of sophisticated tools allows economic operators to better target individuals, thanks to the monitoring of their behaviour.”

The EC would like to give individuals greater rights to control and even delete the personal data held on them by organisations. It is thus looking closely at the so-called “right to be forgotten”, i.e. the right of individuals to have their data no longer processed and deleted when they are no longer needed for legitimate purposes, as well as “data portability”, meaning the right of a person to take their information elsewhere, such as to a competing service.

Other government bodies have not been as proactive, but big companies are savvy about the need to ensure data portability, both to and from their applications. However, the road is not smooth. Google and Facebook have recently been involved in a controversy about “reciprocity” in data portability.

Google maintains that Facebook is a data dead end, and you can’t export it out. Now, Google has changed its rules, and will not allow any website to automatically import contact data unless the other site is reciprocal in allowing a similar export. Techies would be able to do so, manually, but then, this is just a ploy of Google to put some pressure on Facebook.

As more and more data travels to the clouds, harmonising it becomes even more important. No company likes to give its hold on the data it has collected and every company likes to have the so-called “garden hedges” that keep users within its confines. Customers, however, must make sure that one of the determining factors in their choice of applications is data portability. They will need this feature more and more as they evolve on the Net and, therefore, need to make the right choice about which platform to use.

Offline, it makes much sense to devote much thought to the platform that you will use and the operating system that you will be straddled with. I love Apple products, have been using them since the mid-1980s, and still own two Apple desktops, but when I had to buy a laptop, I bought a Windows machine. Its ubiquitous convenience outweighed the undoubted elegance of Apple.

I should have the right to make a choice, and the ability to transfer my data from one platform or application to another. Is it too much to ask? I really don’t think so!

This column by Roopinder Singh was published in the Lifestyle section of The Tribune on November 9, 2010.

Please click here to read previous “Bits about Bytes” columns.


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