Government needs to break the tech roach motels

It's time to apply 21st century thinking to the problem of the big tech companies, not the solutions of the last century.

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

John Battelle has an interesting suggestion on how we should curtail the power of the tech giants: Don’t break up the tech oligarchs; force them to share instead:

The idea is simply this: Require all companies who’ve reached a certain scale to build machine-readable data portability into their platforms. The right to data portability is explicit in the EU’s newly enacted GDPR framework, but so far the impact has been slight: There’s enough wiggle room in the verbiage to hamper technical implementation and scope. Plus, let’s be honest: Europe has never really been a hotbed of open innovation in the first place.
But what if we had a similar statute here? And I don’t mean all of GDPR – that’s certainly a non starter. But that one rule, that one requirement: That every data service at scale had to stand up an API that allowed consumers to access their co-created data, download a copy of it (which I am calling a token), and make that copy available to any service they deemed worthy?

Data portability is something that we don't really give enough thought to. Back in the mid-2000s, the company I was working with installed a blogging/community platform without any thought to getting data out of it. It was chosen purely because it was the only one written in their preferred coding language. Within a couple of years, we had to assemble a team of database experts to scrape all the content out of the systems and importing it into Movable Type.

Every CMS acquisition I was involved with personally thereafter had data portability as a key requirement. If there wasn't an easy and fairly straight-forward way of getting your data out, I didn't do it.

We need to start applying that thinking at a global scale. Too many of the social networks of today are roach motels - your data goes in, but if it comes out at all, it's in a data blog that isn't terribly useful to anyone. Forcing some level of data interoperability is probably a more realistic governmental solution to platform monopolies than the usual break-up approach.

(Interestingly, that post was published on NewCo Shift's WordPress site, which they've moved to from Medium, another platform whose data export is ropey at best.)

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.