Google and Facebook have been making headlines lately. The world's most popular search engine and the world's most popular social network are increasingly facing off in Goliath versus Goliath battles as they fight for dominance on tomorrow's consumer internet.
One key battleground that has emerged: 'data portability.' The two Silicon Valley powerhouses have been locked in a public, back-and-forth argument over the ability of individuals to import and export their personal data to and from their respective services.
Google, which for obvious reasons would like greater access to all of the valuable content and data that Facebook stores behind its walled garden, has tried to cast Facebook as a greedy data hog. Give your personal information and contacts to Facebook and you'll never get them out, it warns. Facebook, on the other hand, essentially argues that you can't export your social graph from Facebook because your social graph belongs to everybody in it.
Not surprisingly, the tech media and elites of the tech world haven't been able to resist promoting the fight as if it were the tech world's version of a blockbuster boxing match. While many criticize both Facebook and Google, the tech set increasingly calls for a world in which consumers 'own' their data and can take it from service to service without any impediment. Call it 'data portability'. Call it 'openness'. Call it whatever you like. The message is clear: the current situation isn't good for consumers.
But is that really the case? What many seem to miss in this whole debate is this: it's not about who 'owns' your data, or your freedom to take that data with you wherever you want to go online. It's about freedom of choice.
Those turning the spat between Google and Facebook into some philosophical debate over openness, and those who inject morality into the debate, ignore the fact that we all have the ability to choose which services we use and which services we don't use. Don't like the fact that you can't pull all of your data out of Facebook in a particular fashion? Don't use the service! As big as Facebook is, it's a decision that plenty have made.
Arguing that there is a right or wrong here is really the same thing as arguing that everyone is stupid. When you cut through the hyperbole, it's quite clear: those who are chastising Facebook falsely assume that consumers are somehow intellectually incapable of weighing the pros and cons of signing up for the world's largest social network. But it's incredulous to believe that 500m people would have signed up for Facebook if the way Facebook treats their data is commercially unacceptable to them. Does that mean that there aren't any Facebook users who are concerned about Facebook's control of their data, or that Facebook might not one day push too far? Of course not. But Facebook offers a service, and on a daily basis individuals vote with their keyboards and mice. When consumers sign up for Facebook and continue to use the service, they are signaling that Facebook's benefits outweigh its flaws. And who are we to second guess them?
The wonderful thing about the internet is that there are almost infinite ways to structure online service offerings. From business models to platform strategies, companies can compete on many fronts. The end result: consumers have greater choice. Think Facebook isn't open enough? There are alternatives. Example: Diaspora. If Diaspora's creators and backers are right about Facebook's flaws and the demand for an 'open' alternative, Diaspora will thrive. If they're not, Diaspora won't.
And that's the way it should be. Because while the tech media likes to wax poetic about an internet that is open and interoperable, the truth is that the innovation we've seen in so many markets, from social networking to mobile software, is a direct result of the fact that there are companies experimenting and competing with wildly different models. Consumers are benefitting immensely every day from this innovation and the choice they have been given. But continued innovation and choice aren't guaranteed, and sadly the digital utopia envisioned by so much of the tech set would likely offer little of either. Fortunately, if the battle between Facebook and Google is any indication, that digital 'utopia' won't be seen anytime soon.
Photo credit: Fried Dough via Flickr.