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Thoughts on dataliberation.org | Monday, September 14th, 2009

Announced today over at the Google Public Policy blog is "DataLiberation.org: Liberate your Data!"

We're a small team of Google Chicago engineers (named after a Monty Python skit about the Judean People's Front) that aims to make it easy for our users to transfer their personal data in and out of Google's services by building simple import and export functions. Our goal is to "liberate" data so that consumers and businesses using Google products always have a choice when it comes to the technology they use.

I may be wrong, but I do believe this is the first time I read about an entire team within such a big firm entirely dedicated to the issue of data portability. The irony here is that Google's track record in the past hasn't been perfect - as I've highlighted more than once - and as much as the decidedly non-Googlish branding and informal tone seem to conspire to lend the project a certain dissociation from the big G, it is very much real, as noted by the aforementioned Public Policy post and the wealth of information on how to delete / export your data from Google services.

For instance, I didn't know that you could clear your Maps locations history. Now I can finally rid my Google Search History of all those late-night massage parlor underground dogfighting Fast Food runs.

I particularly like this:

We're doing this because we want our users to stay with us because they want to. While locking users in is a way to keep them in the short term, we believe that the way to keep users in the long term is to keep innovating and making our products better so that they choose to stay with us.

That may just be the most eloquent and simple business case statement for data portability I've heard.

However, there are still some unanswered questions, such as the link within Google between data portability and data privacy. For instance, in the aforementioned example, I was able to delete certain items of my Google Maps Saved Locations from the history. Indeed, they no longer appear in the history. However, there is no way of knowing if that data, or parts of it, are still stored at Google or elsewhere. In other words, if I take advantage of data portability at Google and move my data elsewhere, how can I be sure that a copy of it is still not saved somewhere on Google servers? This would be, in essence, a rework of my Facebook odyssey 2 years ago.

At any rate, Google is to be applauded for bringing this initiative into the spotlight. A huge part of their success lies in their forward-thinking and open-mindedness regarding such sensitive issues, and although it's not quite ideal yet, their stance on privacy and portability makes me - however briefly - reconsider using Google services again. Much more so, anyhow, than Twitter, Facebook et al, given that you need to jump through hoops to get your data off any of those services. And Google, unlike those two, at least provides genuinely useful services.