Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press. The views expressed here are his own.
In 2018, a group of tech firms including Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter announced The Data Transfer Project (DTP) to enable service-to-service data portability, with the ultimate goal to permit users to move their data between providers. Now, three of DTP’s contributors — Apple, Meta, and Google — have banded together to create the Data Transfer Initiative (DTI), a new nonprofit organization to direct “dedicated engineering and product resources to the design and implementation of data transfer tools.”
The move comes as Europe’s Digital Markets Act (DMA) is set to reach another milestone on May 1st. On that date, the European Commission is expected to identify which firms are to be designated as “gatekeepers”– those identified as enjoying a dominant position in the market. Such firms will be required to make available “free of charge, tools to facilitate the effective exercise of such data portability, and including by the provision of continuous and real-time access to such data.”
The DMA says gatekeepers need to make sure that people who use their service can easily move their data to another service if they want to, and that they need to put in place appropriate technical affordances, like application programming interfaces, to allow data to be moved quickly and continuously. The firms backing DTI intend for it to further develop such technical measures, building on previous efforts to engineer an open source framework and data transfer features that already power aspects of Google Takeout, Facebook’s Transfer your Information, and Apple’s Data and Privacy page, as well as software libraries that connect other such services.
Chris Riley will serve as the organization’s founding Executive Director. Riley was most recently at the R Street Institute, a Washington, DC-based think tank, and prior to that led the Mozilla Corporation’s global public policy efforts.
“I think data portability has always been a nice thing in theory but limited in practice, and I want to change that,” Riley told me in an interview. He believes the tools the initiative can create in its consortium model may help users realize the benefits of portability, and make its provision more than a “compliance tax” on tech firms.
Legislation that would require data portability is also under consideration in the United States. The Senate ACCESS Act, reintroduced last May by Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) and cosponsors Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), would require “large communications platform providers” to “maintain a set of transparent, third party-accessible interfaces (including application programming interfaces) to initiate the secure transfer of user data to a user, or to a competing communications provider acting at the direction of a user, in a structured, commonly used, and machine-readable format.”
The announcement of DTI is accompanied by the release of the Data Transfer Project 1.0 open source code base.
“Over the past few years, DTP’s contributors have introduced new data types and made substantial improvements to the functionality and reliability of DTP’s libraries and adapters,” Riley explained in a statement. “The result is a sufficiently stable code base to power direct transfer features available to billions of internet users today.”DTI is a 501c4 organization. Riley does not anticipate that it will engage in lobbying for specific legislation, but rather that it will focus on the development of the code base and other engineering solutions, in addition to educating policymakers about the benefits and potential of data portability.
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.