Friend portability is the must-have Facebook regulation

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Choice for consumers compels fair treatment by corporations. When people can easily move to a competitor, it creates a natural market dynamic coercing a business to act right. When we can’t, other regulations just leave us trapped with a pig in a fresh coat of lipstick.

That’s why as the FTC  considers how many billions to fine Facebook  or which executives to stick with personal liability or whether to go full-tilt and break up the company, I implore it to consider the root of how Facebook gets away with abusing user privacy: there’s no simple way to switch to an alternative.

If Facebook users are fed up with the surveillance, security breaches, false news, or hatred, there’s no western general purpose social network with scale for them to join. Twitter is for short-form public content, Snapchat is for ephemeral communication. Tumblr is neglected. Google+ is dead. Instagram is owned by Facebook. And the rest are either Chinese, single-purpose, or tiny.

No, I don’t expect the FTC to launch its own “Fedbook” social network. But what it can do is pave an escape route from Facebook so worthy alternatives become viable options. That’s why the FTC must require Facebook offer truly interoperable data portability for the social graph.

In other words, the government should pass regulations forcing Facebook to let you export your friend list to other social networks in a privacy-safe way. This would allow you to connect with or follow those people elsewhere so you could leave Facebook without losing touch with your friends. The increased threat of people ditching Facebook for competitors would create a much stronger incentive to protect users and society.

The slate of potential regulations for Facebook currently being discussed by the FTC’s heads include a $3 billion to $5 billion fine or greater, holding Facebook CEO personally liable for violations of an FTC consent decree, creating new privacy and compliance positions including one held by executive that could be filled by Zuckerberg, creating an independent oversight committee to review privacy and product decisions, according to the New York Times and Washington Post. More extreme measures like restricting how Facebook collects and uses data for ad targeting, blocking future acquisitions, or breaking up the company are still possible but seemingly less likely.

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