On Google and Facebook

Mike Melanson interviewed me today over the whole Facebook vs Google standoff. He wrote a nice piece that I recommend you read, but I thought I would expand on what I was quoted on to give my full perspective.

To me, there is a bigger picture battle here, and it’s for us to see true data interoperability on the Internet, of which this is but a minor battle in the bigger war.

I see a strong parallel to global trade and data portability on the web. Like in the days of restrictive trade tariffs that have been progressively demolished with globalisation, the ‘protectionism’ being cried out by each party of protecting their users is but a hollow attempt to satisfy their voters in the short-term, which are the shareholders of each company. This tit-for-tat approach is what governments still practice with trade and people-travel restrictions, but which at the end of the day hurts individuals in the short-term but society as a whole in the longer term. It doesn’t help anyone but give companies (and as we’ve seen historically, governments) a short term sigh of relief.

You only have to look at Australia, which went from having some of the highest trade tariffs in the world in the ’70s to being one of the most open economies in the world by the ’90s. The effect of this is that it made it one of the most competitive economies in the world, which is part of the reason that of all the OECD countries during the recent financial crisis, it managed to be the only economy not to fall into recession. Companies, like the economies governments try to protect, need to be able to react to their market to survive, and they can only do that successfully in the long term by being truly competitive.

The reality is, Facebook and Google are hurting the global information network, as true value unlocks when we have a peered privacy-respecting interoperability network. The belief that value is interpreted as who holds the most data, is a mere attempt to buy time for their true competitive threat — the broader battle for interoperability — which will expose them to compete not on the data they acquired but on their core value as a web service to use that data. These companies need to recognise what their true comparative advantage is and what they can do with that data.

Google and Facebook have improved a lot over the years with regards to data portability, but they continue to make the mistake (if not in words, but in actions) — that locking in the data is the value. Personal information acquired by companies loses value with time — people’s jobs, locations, and even email accounts — change over time and are no longer relevant. What a site really wants is persistent access to a person so they can tap into the more recently updated data, for whatever they need. What Google and Facebook are doing is really hurting them as they would benefit by working together. Having a uniform way of transferring data between their information network silo’s ensures privacy-respecting ways that minimise the risk for the consumer (which they claim to be protecting) and the liberalisation of the data economy means they can in the long term focus on their comparative advantage with the same data.

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