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Online Public Spaces, Longevity and Portability of Data: policies your MPs can promote

This is the second of a three-post series on Online Public Spaces. In this post, I focus on the longevity and portability of data and argue for the creation of a cross-platform open standard for data-transfer across social networks, to facilitate decentralised online interaction.

In a previous article, I have argued that online public spaces, such as Google+Twitter and Facebook, should be subject to the same regulations as physical public spaces. These online services are as much places of communal interaction as are pubs, the argument went. In this article I will suggest what one should ask their MPs for, to ensure the longevity and portability of their data. [Theoretical part follows, if bored (shame on you) skip the next 4 paragraphs to read the practical suggestions.]

If liberal philosophers and deliberative democrats are right, then dialogue and exchange of good reasons is valuable. For the liberal philosopher it is integral to the process of finding the guiding principles of a just society and for the deliberative democrat it is important because it nurtures the skills necessary for achieving truly democratic institutions.

The value of dialogue is a central aspect of multiculturalism as well. Dialogical multiculturalists talk about the importance of understanding each other at a deeper level; not only the cultural claim must be explained and understood, but also the motivations and the assumptions behind every request. Even the very term ‘multiculturalism’ is now considered banal because it does not facilitate dialogue. The new hip-term pioneered and promoted by Ted Cantle is ‘interculturalism‘. Long story short, dialogue is considered important by different people for different reasons.

The problem with these views is that they assume, or rather implicitly require, that there is somehow a platform where this dialogue is going to take place. In countries like the UK, where socioeconomic status is tightly linked to geography and education, the idea of a public space of social interaction is problematic. It is either an ideological construct or plain old wishful thinking. Although new theories of deliberative systems are now emerging that take into consideration the dispersed nature of human interaction and socialisation, the fact remains that physical spaces are inevitably segregated based on social and economic status.

The internet has not succeeded at creating a level playing field. Nonetheless, it has managed to provide a space for dialogue whose barriers of entry are less substantial than those found in the physical world.

How shall we facilitate this process? What can regular citizens like you and me ask their political elites for? What kind of demands can we make to ensure that these online spaces of public interaction are protected?

In the previous article I have argued that we should request that the corporations that shut down their online public spaces should be required to provide the source code of their service so that it can live elsewhere, like Google did when it discontinued its Wave service, which is now hosted under a free licence on servers of the Apache Foundation.

This view I characterised as inelegant, because it faces obvious limitations. As Panayiotis Vryonis suggested the code used by the discontinued service might be shared with other of the company’s propriatory services. Google for example, even if forced to provide the source code of its Reader, it should not be expected to release the code of the underlying libraries shared with its other products, thus making the release of GReader unusable since it will not work without the libraries.

There is I think a better way to go about regulating these public spaces. It has to do with cross-platform data portability and longevity. The moment has come to think seriously about the protection and survival of our data, despite it being dispersed across the various social media networks.

Our data should cease to be ephemeral. A legal requirement should exist, included in the terms of service of each of these services, which requires the providers of these public spaces to guarantee (a) the survival of personal data for a certain period of time and (b) the availability of said data after the service is discontinued.

An important clarification on the longevity and portability argument, is that the data should be saved in a format that is open. That is, in a non-proprietary format that will enable people to take control of their data easily and cheaply.

Additionally, in order to guarantee the longevity and portability of personal data, another requirement should be placed, regarding the import and export process of the data. If we agree that it is important to maintain the personal data of the user, then a mechanism is needed that guarantees a unified framework of data transfer. Say for example that Facebook is closing tomorrow. We need a mechanism to export our data and import it into another service.

To succeed in this cross-platform data transfer, the owners of the social media services must guarantee that the data is exported in an open standard in order to be accessible by all. At the same time we need to guarantee that the alternative services will be willing and in position to import this data.

Thus we are talking about two regulations. The first being the regulation that the data must be available for export in an open standard and the second one being a universal framework of data import. The overarching objective is that the end-user should be able to transfer their personal data from one service to another with as little effort as humanly possible.

The important thing is to keep the discussion going. The example of blogs is one that proves that a debate can take place without the need of a centralised system. In order to make the import/export mechanism an industry standard we need the political elites to make it a legal requirement. The benefits of this regulation would be enormous because people would no longer be afraid of the survival of their data or of the survival of the social network they are currently invested in.

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