Musings on Contention in Data and Portability Thereof

If you ever read Master Sun’s The Art of War, you’ll understand clearly that contention leads to conflict, and conflict leads to war. No clearer is this the case than yesterday’s battle about data ownership amongst some of the most prominent technology bloggers. Warning: the following link is to a podcast that contains adult language. You can listen to the discussion here.

At the heart of this heated discussion is the ownership and portability of personal data proceeding the tete-a-tete involving Google and Facebook. The summary scenario goes like this… if you give somebody your business card, the social contract states that you’re sharing your information with that person and they’ll then own it. However, you trust that the transfer of that data is on a one-to-one basis. Now imagine for a second if that person took your business card and published all of your contact information publicly in a way that any person could gain access to that, but that is not exclusively what you intended with your contact info. Would that be a breach of the social contract?

Of course there would be a penalty in such a scenario. If you did not want your information widely published, you’d hold the party you shared your business card with responsible, right? Well, that’s the scenario being faced in the web social networking space. Facebook, through their actions, appears to believe they own any data that you have created on their application. In fact, up until a couple of months ago it was extremely difficult (if not impossible) to delete/remove yourself from their application.

In an effort to make our personal data more portable, groups such as OpenID are working to allow users to carry their personal information with them across the web. But now let’s look at the bigger issue. Imagine for a second that you have a friends list, social graph, or contacts data. Should you be able to take that with you too? And if so, does your social contract with all of those people empower you to take their contact data wherever you want?

This is a very challenging issue. BusinessCard2 has been on both sides of this issue; we have allowed for the publishing of contacts’ data and have also put full account and data control in the hands of our users. Just in the last week we made the decision to avoid the problem of contacts assigned to a single identity by opposing any functionality in our application from importing a users’ contacts. This was a rather simple decision because we felt it was the right thing to do. It may slow our growth, but we think the rewards are that we can sleep at night without concerning ourselves over maintaining data on people who are not or do not want to be a part of our application.

This contention also brings up an even bigger issue, and that is the fact that BusinessCard2 is not purposed as a social network. In fact, I’d say we’re the opposite of a social network. A social network is about aggregating contacts and connections, primarily involving those who you have relationships (whether authentic or virtual) with. BusinessCard2, on the other hand, is purposed to help bridge the gap between you and somebody you don’t yet know. In our model, it’s a solution to uniting two disconnected nodes (you and a customer who doesn’t know you yet).

As a commercial connectivity tool, we are providing our application as a means of broadcasting your professional identity to new audiences: potential new customers, potential new partners, etc. This of it as your own personal dynamic website that you own and control, but can go outside of the walled garden of BusinessCard2.com.

The walled gardens of systems like Facebook, LinkedIn, etc., are good for Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. At times they’re also good for the body of the social network (Facebook may not have grown as large if they didn’t have a walled garden). Regardless of personal opinions on the moral and contractual obligations of data and data portability, the simple fact is that people want to and should be able to move freely outside the walled garden, and should be able to terminate their data within a walled garden any time they wish. The leading social networking websites understand this, or portability wouldn’t be an issue. From a defensive position, they want to ensure that their application isn’t just a fad, so they’re willing to talk about things like portability. But, when they say one thing and do another, that is a smoke screen, right?

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