Social media users may soon be able to easily transfer their personal information to competing platforms. On October 22, 2019, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators (Mark R. Warner (D-VA), Josh Hawley (R-MO), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT)) introduced the Augmenting Compatibility and Competition by Enabling Service Switching Act (ACCESS Act), a bill aimed at encouraging market-based competition among today’s major social media platforms by requiring the largest of these tech companies to allow users to move their data from one service to another.
The bill, should it become law, would be regulated and enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and would require large communications platforms (products or services with over 100 million monthly active users in the U.S.) to:
- Make users’ personal data portable, by allowing users to retrieve and/or transfer their personal data in a structure and machine-readable format.
- Maintain interoperability with other platforms, including competing companies.
- Give users the ability to designate a trusted third-party service to manage their privacy, content, online interactions, and account settings.
Concerns on both sides
In a press release, the bipartisan group of senators expressed their concern regarding the dominance of a handful of major platforms with little real competition. According to U.S. Senator Mark R. Warner (D-VA), by “making it easier for social media users to easily move their data or to continue to communicate with their friends after switching platforms, startups will be able to compete on equal terms with the biggest social media companies.” In other words, the hope in Washington is that the ACCESS Act would increase market competition, encourage innovation, and increase consumer choice by requiring large communications platforms to allow customers to easily move their data.
The bill specifically targets only the largest technology platforms (with over 100 million monthly active users in the U.S.), which is receiving criticism from the industry as a way of attacking the major social media companies. Additionally, many in the space are likely to view these data portability requirements as creating an environment in which consumers’ personal information is more susceptible to cyber attacks. There is technology industry support for some form of data portability as a method to provide consumers choice and enable new developers and start-ups to compete and innovate; however, to address these data privacy and security concerns, Congress would also need to set “rules of the road,” such as who is responsible for protecting consumer data during transfers between the different services.
Additionally, Warner, who is a former telecommunications executive, and others in Washington, are increasingly comparing the major technology platforms to the dominant telecommunications providers of the 90’s, and are taking a similar route to regulate them. In the early stages of the wireless communications space, consumers rarely switched to competing carriers to avoid losing their telephone numbers. In response, Congress required carriers to allow consumers to maintain their telephone numbers when switching to a different carrier. This action is largely credited with increasing competition between telecommunication companies, as is the aim of the ACCESS Act.
While more so at the state level (particularly in California), this bill is part of a growing trend at the federal level to propose legislation requiring more transparency, user access, and privacy and protection of customer data. This summer alone, these same senators jointly proposed:
- The Designing Accounting Safeguards to Help Broaden Oversight and Regulations on Data (DASHBOARD) Act, which would require companies, such as social media platforms, to disclose how they monetize user data and how much that data is worth.
- The Do Not Track Act, which would allow users to opt out of certain types of unnecessary data collection, similar to the national “Do Not Call” list.
While these bills have yet to pass and are not likely to in the immediate future, we can expect more legislative proposals and discussion in Washington to increase around users’ power over their data.