Exploring Data Portability

Summary: We’d like to hear from you on whether and how to increase your ability to get and use your data.

Many of us store our email and photos with cloud services companies or track our finances on bank websites instead of in a checkbook register. Our medical records are stored electronically at hospitals and doctors’ offices. Permitting service providers to store and manage personal data has proven popular because it is enormously convenient and enables companies to make many services better.

Graphic of computing clouds uploading binary code.

But what happens when we want to get a copy of our data? Today, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is asking for your thoughts on whether and how to increase your ability to get and use your data. The catchphrase for this ability is “data portability,” and it generally means the ability to download the information that a service stores for or about an individual. Data portability should allow us to enjoy the convenience of keeping our data online, and the ability to gain access to it and use it how we wish.

Working with the private sector, the Obama Administration has made significant progress in increasing data portability through its My Data initiatives, launched in 2010. These include Blue Button for health data, Green Button for electric utility data, My Transcript for Internal Revenue Service data, My Student Data for federal student data, and many others.

Three ads for Blue Button, a My Data healthcare initiative that works with public and private sector organizations to expand patients’ access to their medical records online.

Indeed, while many private services have embraced data portability, there are still many that have not, including entire industries for which the concept remains alien. There are also some domains where some form of data portability is required by law or regulation, such as for health or certain federal government records, but there are many others where data portability is not required under U.S. law.

It is also important to note that even where data portability is being implemented, the scope of what is considered the user’s data can be quite different. Some interpretations of data portability apply only to data manually entered by the requesting user. Others interpret “user data” more broadly to include data collected about the user, such as usage data, or even conclusions drawn by the service about the user, such as the categories of information that the user is likely to be interested in as predicted based on website visits. There is also disagreement about what it means to have made the data portable. Some interpret portability as being able to see the information on a screen, others interpret portability more broadly to include that data be provided in a manner accessible by a new service.

Important things to consider

Proponents of increased data portability point to numerous, significant benefits for users, service providers, and the broader public. For users, perhaps the most important benefits are the ability to create backups of their most important data, like photographs, tax returns, and other financial information, and reducing the danger of becoming locked-in to a single service, especially in a world where service providers may change business models or discontinue products. Consumers may also benefit from increased competition, which is consistent with the goals laid out by the Administration in the Executive Order on competition. If consumers cannot switch easily between platforms, it may be difficult for would-be services to enter the market, resulting in less innovation or higher prices. Increasing data portability may induce businesses to compete with one another to offer better prices and higher quality services to win or retain a customer’s business. Service providers, meanwhile, may benefit from offering data portability to increase user trust through the transparency and ease of switching data portability provides, and help manage the termination of services. Finally, the public benefits when data portability provides a greater sense of accountability and promotes transparency as to what information stored provider is storing. As the Administration’s 2014 Big Data Report stated: “The ability to access one’s personal information will be increasingly important in the future, when more aspects of life will involve data transactions between individuals, companies, and institutions.”

Others may point to potential private and public downsides. With lower switching costs, businesses might adjust their business models and become more selective in their initial customer acquisition strategy or invest less in their customer relationships, which might leave some sets of customers worse off than before. Some privacy and security advocates also worry that the strength of data portability – easier sharing of information – could encourage more information sharing, including when it might be inadvisable from a privacy perspective or when a criminal successfully breaks into an unsecured service.

Through OSTP’s Request for Information, we hope to better understand: (1) the potential benefits and drawbacks of increased data portability; (2) the industries or types of data that would most benefit or be harmed by increased data portability; (3) the specific steps the Federal Government, private companies, associations, or others might take to encourage or require greater data portability (as well as the benefits and drawbacks of each approach); (4) best practices in implementing data portability; and (5) any additional information related to data portability policy making that we should consider with respect to data portability. The Request for Information will be open until November 23, 2016 and we anticipate reporting on your input after the RFI has closed to aid future policy makers on this topic.Alexander Macgillivray is a Deputy Chief Technology Officer of the United States in the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Jay Shambaugh is a member of the Council of Economic Advisors. This post was originally published on the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Blog.

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