Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is at SXSW doing press interviews today and many people want to know what his thoughts are concerning data portability. There's a big web out there that would like to give and take user data in and out of Facebook. We focused on data portability in our conversation with Zuckerberg and got a fairly clear picture of his views on the subject.
Zuckerberg told me today that he believes data portability is an important direction the web is moving in, that fundamental openness between sites is inevitable - but that Facebook is focusing on questions of privacy and user control as its contribution to that movement. That may be a fair, if frustrating, position for Facebook to take. It may also leave them on the sidelines of larger conversations.
Privacy Controls as the Key to Data Portability
Granular control over degrees of openness are vital to making openness viable, Zuckerberg told me today. He said people have been trained to believe that there is a binary set of options concerning privacy and sharing of data: that some things are sharable and others are not.
"Take a photo album from a party," he said. "Unless you have specific tools to limit who can see it, then you won't share it with anyone." If users have granular control over who is able to access shared data, Zuckerberg argued, then whole classes of information previously considered unsharable could be opened up. Those tools, he said, need to be simple enough for non-power users to use them easily.
When that information is opened, though, which parts of it are sharable and which aren't?
"If you export your friends list, does their contact information come with that? What if they change their privacy settings later? Right now if you take an action that gets published to your friends' news feeds, but then if you change your privacy settings later to be more restrictive - then those events disappear from the news feeds. If that data is published off-site, then there's no longer any control over the data for users."
Hopefully these aren't deal breakers on openness. Privacy controls are integral to the core of Facebook, Zuckerberg pointed out. "That's the vector around which Facebook operates." In order for data portability to become a reality within the privacy-centric context of Facebook, he said, there need to be good answers to questions like these. Zuckerberg says Facebook is actively working on answering those questions.
The company has been pushing the limits of privacy for some time now, though. The introduction of both the now-loved newsfeed and the still-controversial Beacon caused huge privacy debates.
On Beacon, Zuckerberg said: "There were sites that people wanted to share from, like Yelp, where you're already making public comment. For shopping, maybe in a couple of years people will want to share that." He said that it "was probably a mistake" to roll out Beacon in the context of user commercial activity. He emphasizes that Beacon is a part of the Facebook Platform more than it is an advertising effort.
In his keynote interview here yesterday, though, Zuckerberg argued that exposed shopping activity was the future of advertising, that such personal endorsements of products from trusted friends was the ultimate in advertising. If Beacon's developers didn't see advertising at the center of their vision, no one told the marketing department that prior to the program's launch.
To be fair, Beacon does have a lot of potential for sharing a variety of types of activity on Facebook. It's an efficient and innovative way to capture what are essentially authenticated feeds of user activities on 3rd party sites. At least a handful of non-commerce companies like SixApart and Joost participated in the launch of Beacon. It's much smarter than it would be to ask users to login to those sites from Facebook, for example. The whole mess could move towards a solution if Facebook used its largess to advance standards-based authentication protocols, but that's not what's happening.
Zuckerberg's assertion that people may be more excited about exposing their shopping activities in a few years may be correct, but it might also be the delusion of a man trying to monetize the tricky market of social networking.
If Facebook could keep its pants on and make tangible progress on trustworthy sharing of non-commercial activities from elsewhere back onto Facebook - then maybe there would be sufficient trust built with users to expose commercial activity in the future.
"We Threw an API and Nobody Came"
At the current time, Zuckerberg says he's not clear how much actual demand there is for the whole-hog of data portability. Six months before the launch of the Developer Platform, he says, the company opened up a series of APIs that anyone could use to access user profile information.
He expected the reaction to those APIs to be huge and it wasn't. Today there are just more than 1,000 sites leveraging those APIs, he said, but there are more than 300,000 developers who have built apps on the Developer Platform.
I asked Zuckerberg if he was taken to the edge of a cliff and had to implement either OpenID, oAuth or APML immediately - which would he chose? He said he enjoyed the question, that OpenID was the one of the three protocols that had been most discussed internally, but that the bulk of actual developer demand seems to him to be focused on the Facebook Platform.
Evolving the Facebook Platform
That Platform will increasingly move off-site, Zuckerberg said, to other websites, mobile applications and elsewhere. That doesn't sound nearly as nice as expanding the pool based on open standards would.
Instead, Facebook is focused right now on changing the incentive structure for application developers on its Platform, Zuckerberg said. "Developers aren't fundamentally spammy," he told me, "they want to add value around what they are enabled to do. So far they've been incentivized to get as many users as possible." He said the company is trying to shift the incentive structure to reward truly useful, trustworthy apps. Today they are using that kind of metric to set an app's number of invitations it can send and in the near future they will use the same metric to meter newsfeed notifications. Presumably that will include newsfeed notifications from off-site activity, via Beacon and off-site applications.
Data portability advocates might take heart in the fact that Zuckerberg wants to clean up the Facebook ecosystem of Zombie-throwing crap. The percentage of data worth making portable on Facebook is far from ideal today. Zuckerberg himself likes games best, too, though. I asked him what some of his favorite apps were and he said he plays Scrabulous with his grandparents. I don't know if that's a far cry from the heady Platform launch days when Facebook was going to "become an operating system" or not.
A Big, Ambivalent Picture
Facebook has sent a representative from the highest levels of the company to join the Data Portability Working Group, but on balance Zuckerberg seems content for now to focus on getting his own house in order before moving towards general interoperability.
That may be frustrating, but the problems Facebook is tackling are important ones. Data portability will not be viable anywhere until there are simple, granular and effective controls over user data and privacy. Facebook is in a good place to focus on solving those problems. Could they do that work with the existing community of other companies and developers based in open standards? Yes, they could.
Their previous innovations (newsfeed, for example) have spread far and wide as inspiration, though, without that kind of collaboration. Perhaps the best that data portability advocates can hope for now is that Facebook will solve big, common problems in interesting ways that others can emulate. It's a big missed opportunity for all parties involved, though, that they aren't doing that work with other companies and organizations. Arguably, Google and Microsoft are doing that right now.
Facebook may have felt like the only game in town when the Platform launched, but things change fast and between the much broader OpenSocial and a fast expanding community of standards based developers - Facebook might soon find that it's sitting on the sidelines while everyone else works together to solve these common problems.
"We are philosophically aligned [with the data portability movement]," Zuckerberg said. "We are pushing in our own way to make the world a more open place. It's going to be good when it happens."