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Data neutrality

Historical shifts are the gradual accumulations of individual events, most of whose true significance can only be properly valued in hindsight. Though it may be somewhat premature, I would like to propose an event that transpired this year for future historians to include in their narrative of our present times. In May 2015, both Facebook and LinkedIn shut down third-party API access to substantial portions of their user information, most crucially graph data (i.e. information about friendships and connections between users).

API, or Application Program Interface, is a set of digital protocols laid out by a web service to provide standardized access to features and data so that third-party developers can integrate with the web service. A simple example of this would be the fact that you can login to Uber using your Facebook account and give Uber instant access to your profile photo and full name. In this particular case, the changes to the API prevent third-party applications from accessing the user’s friend list, even when the user gives permission to do so.

This move by Facebook and LinkedIn was ostensibly either a response to growing privacy concerns thrown into the spotlight by news headlines like WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden or a desire to ensure a better experience for the users. But there is a deeper power play at work. The real motivation for limiting access to data is to consolidate control. LinkedIn may have removed data access to the average dorm-room app developer, but it continues to offer privileged access to those same sets of data through its partnership programs. Similarly, established apps such as Tinder and Venmo continue to have access to the Facebook social graph, even though countless smaller and independent apps were forced to shut down following the API change.

In the past, companies like Zynga achieved incredible exponential user growth by leveraging data provided by social networks like Facebook, but those free and easy days are over. Today, a similar startup cannot hope to succeed without first obtaining explicit permission from the established social networks. It is easy to see why social networks and large tech companies have moved away from strong open access models: If Facebook’s social graph is what enables a startup to create additional value to the end user, then Facebook should be the company that delivers those services so as to maximize its own share value. Instead of allowing convenient API access to a hypothetical payment app that could one day challenge Venmo, Facebook implemented its own payment scheme using Facebook Messenger.

We like to think of digital technology as a disruptor of monopolies and traditional corporate power structures. For the longest time, the large conglomerates and governments were the only way through which great endeavors can be undertaken. The Internet was supposed to be the great equalizer that allows a ragtag team of ambitious founders to take on the big guys and change the world. Information was trapped in physical silos like outdated mainframe computers and filing cabinets and the Internet liberated them to create incredible efficiencies and enriching experiences. Those idyllic days have come to an end.

The companies who were once underdogs that pushed for open access and third-party support to attain their market share are now the status quo, and this time the incumbents are using digital technology to build new silos of information that are insurpassable by new challengers. Information is no longer withheld because of technical limitations; it is withheld because Google, Facebook and Apple decide that it should be.

“Net neutrality” is about Internet service providers like Comcast abusing their monopoly power as the gatekeepers of the physical network in order to distort the free market. Perhaps it is about time we talk about “data neutrality” and the role that data monopolies like Google and Facebook play in determining the future of our economy.

Contact Raven Jiang at jcx ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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