Can Online Data Be Truly Portable? Industry Heavyweights Think So.

data high speed

It’s easy to imagine the appeal: Transferring loyalty program data from one grocer to another, moving image data from a social media site to an online photo-printing service, retaining access to music playlists after leaving a website with weak privacy protections or other flaws.

Those are among the use cases for what’s called the Data Transfer Project (DTP). The effort, backed by Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter, seeks to build “an open-source, service-to-service data portability platform so that all individuals across the web [can] easily move their data between online service providers whenever they want.”

Having code and standards that allow that would make it possible for digital consumers to directly and seamlessly transfer data between two online service providers — a development in data portability that could allow more digital freedom for shoppers and other web users, and business opportunities for online merchants, social media operators and service providers.

Digital platforms already offer data-downloading features, but the difference with the DTP is that it is focusing on interoperability so that such tools can easily work with multiple sites.

“The Data Transfer Project uses services’ existing APIs and authorization mechanisms to access data,” according to the project’s website. “It then uses service specific adapters to transfer that data into a common format, and then back into the new service’s API.”

Data Control

The pitch for the DTP centers largely around consumer control of data — a significant selling point in this era of heightened concerns about online security and privacy, and in a digital world being reshaped by Europe’s recently enacted General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR. There is also the move, centered in Europe via the PSD2, of enabling upstart FinTech companies to remove the barriers to entry and credit access that have kept large numbers of growth businesses and consumers out of the market.

Simply put, DTP would, in the words of Google, let consumers “transfer data directly from one service to another, without needing to download and re-upload it.” That, in turn, “pushes us to develop great products because we know they can pack up and leave at any time.”

DTP Development

Right now, the DTP “supports data transfer for photos, mail, contacts, calendars, and tasks, drawing from publicly available APIs from Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram, Remember the Milk, and SmugMug.”

The DTP remains in development “and is not quite ready for everyone to use yet.” According to the project website, which offers those uses cases but no sites powered by the DTP, it is supposed to be “coming soon.” The project, in fact, is still seeking companies interested in DTP integration, or individuals who want to “contribute technically,” along with people who “want to be involved in non-technical aspects of the project,”

According to a report, most work on the DTP’s code so far has come from Google and Microsoft engineers. There seems to be no reliable estimate for the DTP’s completion. The project website said that “while we have code that works for a variety of use cases, we are continually making improvements that might cause things to break occasionally.”

Besides those technical hurdles, there seems to be little doubt that no matter the pragmatic appeal of making digital data more portable, a decent number of consumers, whether fairly or not, will look upon the DTP with skepticism.  Not only is Europe’s GDPR sparking consumer awareness of online privacy and data security protections, but it is encouraging lawmakers to address those issues as well. Such controversies as the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal don’t seem likely to make consumers any less skittish about trusting big digital firms on data issues, no matter the potential consumer benefit.

Google and the other heavyweights involved in the DTP have already shown they will spend the time and cash on experimental projects and other efforts that could take years to pay off. It will take a while to see if consumers and businesses accept the tenants of the DTP, but the project represents a significant effort to redefine, or least streamline, how data is used online.