Impaired Social Mobility

Posted by Prasad Krishna at Jan 22, 2010 07:05 AM |
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Leading e-mail providers like Gmail and Yahoo Mail have introduced open protocols for copying e-mails offline through Microsoft Outlook or Mozilla Thunderbird but popular social networking websites like Facebook, Myspace, etc generally do not allow the user to backup their own data. Sunil Abraham through this article points out that if competition and technological development does not rectify the situation then the government needs to intervene for the sake of its citizens.

A good number of netizens spend hours on social networking websites – lovingly building a circle of friends, or alternatively a social or commercial marketing campaign. God forbid –if something goes wrong then we start again from square one. There are several serious threats right there on the horizon, of which I will name only two. One, the owner of the social networking services could go bust – if it could happen to the Lehman Brothers it can happen to Web entrepreneurs still dreaming about their business model. Two, a security slip from either side could result in a bot or hacker gaining control of your account and also corrupting your data. Last year, Myspace was breached and 17 GB of private photographs was leaked onto The Pirate Bay. Earlier this year, Microsoft almost lost data for nearly 800,000 sidekick smart phone users in the US. Today, compromised twitter accounts can be noticed by the increased frequency spam messages. As these systems become increasingly complex and ownership shifts, these mishaps are only going to get more frequent. And in most cases you just can't backup your own data.

In the days of offline software – vendor lock-in was achieved using proprietary formats thus preventing users from migrating to the competition. As a result, very few of us have files from the Word Star and Word Perfect days.  Proprietary formats force the user to keep renewing the license for the associated software or worse, pirating it. Fortunately, the copyright law in many countries including India allows for reverse engineering and free software developers were able to provide us alternatives such as This combined with anti-trust investigation in Europe and US has resulted in Microsoft embracing an open format as native storage for the latest version of the Office suite. 

Today it is déjà vu in the world of social networking in particular and cloud computing more generally. Facebook, Myspace, Orkut and their ilk all provide file storage, contact management, messaging and calendaring functionality. However, very few of them actually allow the user to backup their data – for example on Facebook and Myspace it is not possible for a user to backup their contact database. Some exceptions like Orkut allows for export of contact database, etc., but that is more because it is not the primary monopoly that Google wants to protect. Fortunately, email providers like Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo Mail have all finally embraced open protocols and are using POP3 or IMAP protocol and we can copy our mail offline using Microsoft Outlook or Mozilla Thunderbird. In the future, social networking sites may congregate around a couple of open standards and offer their users true digital social mobility. There are already some initial signs of hope here – for example, the Data Portability Project is supported by individuals from Plaxo, Facebook and Google.

However, if competition and technological development does not rectify the situation then there might be a case for government intervention. Especially, because citizens wishing to engage in e-governance have no choice but to embrace the choice of the politicians and bureaucrats whether it is Twitter, Facebook or YouTube. In Canada, the Privacy Commissioner forced Facebook to change its policies on retaining user data after they had deleted their accounts. In US, the Attorney Generals of 49 states gave a laundry list of modifications to Myspace in order to keep children safe from paedophiles. In India too, the government and civil society should collaborate on policy reform to ensure that citizens’ rights are protected on social networking websites. Think of it as a phone number portability equivalent for Web 2.0.


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