UPDATED 12:59 EST / JULY 20 2018


Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter launch open-source initiative to free users’ data

Four of the world’s largest tech companies are teaming up on a new open-source initiative designed to make the web more competitive.

Google LLC, Facebook Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Twitter Inc. today formally launched the Data Transfer Project to provide tools for moving data among online platforms. They argue that making it easier to switch services will give consumers more flexibility while enabling providers to compete on a more level playing field.

Brian Willard and Greg Fair, two engineers from Google, detailed the vision behind the project in a blog post today. “This idea, called ‘data portability,’ gives people greater control of their information, and pushes us to develop great products because we know they can pack up and leave at any time,” they wrote. “Services will benefit as well, as they will be able to compete for users that can move their data more easily.”

The Data Transfer Project is in many ways an evolution of the existing data export tools provided by Google and many other web companies. These tools enable users to easily download content such as photos, but often provide no straightforward means of moving the files to another service. Migrating contacts, calendar entries and other items that are to a certain degree tied to a specific platform is particularly difficult.

The Data Transfer Project aims to address the challenge by enabling companies to implement information “adapters” between their platforms. Currently, seven are available for services from Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram, popular to-do app Remember the Milk and SmugMug, the photo sharing provider that recently acquired Flickr.

The tech giants involved in the initiative have also released a white paper to guide other companies through the process of building their own adapters. To exchange information, two firms must agree to allow content transfers between their services and require that individuals authenticate each account independently. When a person moves their data, everything needs to be encrypted using a unique cryptographic key.

“All credentials and user data will be encrypted both in transit and at rest,” Google’s Brian Willard and Greg Fair wrote. “The protocol uses a form of perfect forward secrecy where a new unique key is generated for each transfer. Additionally, the framework allows partners to support any authorization mechanism they choose. This enables partners to leverage their existing security infrastructure when authorizing accounts.”

The Data Transfer Project is currently under active development, meaning there’s likely a ways to go before switching among online services become as simple as the initiative’s backers envision. Plus, a lot may depend on the extent to which top web companies will support content migrations. Some of the firms that eventually implement the technology may limit support to only certain information or services. Plus, Apple Inc. is notably absent from the initiative.

It’s worth noting as well that this almost certainly isn’t merely an altruistic move. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation that went into effect in May includes a right to data portability, so despite some of the players’ long backing of the notion, the agreement among the large companies no doubt was influenced by increasing concern about who owns data and how much control people have over their data.

In any case, the fact that the initiative is backed by four of the most influential companies in the tech sector should go a long way toward driving industry interest. The group has set up a dedicated website for the Data Transfer Project and released the source code on GitHub.  

Image: JanBaby/Pixabay

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