Google: why it's important you can get hold of your data

LXF: It must be a hard thing to pitch to the bean counters, and the people controlling all the money at the top…

BF: I was a little reticent at first, thinking, 'Am I going to get fired?'.

LXF: So it was you that actually pitched the idea then?

BF: Sure. The first time I went and talked to Eric Schmidt about this, he said: "Why are you in here talking to me about this? Why aren't you out there doing it?" So off I went, and when everyone found out about it, they found it fits in with our mission and our philosophy.

I want to live in a world, and in the internet, in the future, where things are open and it's easier to move from one place to another. We're still very early in the life of the internet – a lot of the ways we deal with data are very specific to implementations. If you were to rent an apartment, and they said you can't take anything out when you leave, would you stay there?

LXF: If it was a really good apartment!

BF: Really? You'd leave all your family photos, wedding pictures? Would you check yourself into prison, automatically? People do this all the time with their data! That's the way I see it.

LXF: It must've been a pretty big technical challenge, if you were going from a standing start. Like with Gmail…

BF: Gmail is pretty big, but say that something is a "technical challenge" at Google and it's a little dicey, right? Because we're going to index the entire web, right? And we're going to serve up ads faster than you can sneeze. That's a technical challenge!

I would say there have been a lot of challenges in getting going, but those are about integration and doing things securely. Finding ways to build on APIs if they exist, or building new APIs if they don't exist.

LXF: Does it affect the way that new products at Google are designed, to actually incorporate the Data Liberation aspect?

Brian fitzpatrick interview

BF: People are thinking of it sooner and sooner. People used to think about it after launching a product, and now people are thinking about it before launch. And teams have been reaching out to us to say, "Hey, how do we do this right?"

LXF: Do you see that becoming an official policy one day at Google? Like, if you make a new product there must be a way to get the data out?

BF: Well, I hesitate to make something an official mandate or policy, because when you come up with a policy there are always situations where an exception is worthwhile. My belief is to make it more part of the culture, so that it's something that people are voluntarily doing. They're thinking, 'This is something I want my product to have'.

So I'm not big into setting firm policy unless I feel there's a real danger to something or someone. For some products, depending on how fast they're iterating, it's easier to get something at launch.

LXF: At the moment, on the Data Liberation Website you get a list of products and methods for getting them out. Is the idea to move them all into Google Takeout, so eventually you have a big tarball that you download?

BF: I'd like to see everything in Google Takeout – we'll see if we can get there; that's a lot of work. But it's your data, and you should have control over it.

My thought beyond that is, people tend to mis-trust big companies – Google gets a hard time because of the whole 'Don't be evil' thing, but I'm glad of that. I'm glad that people hold us to a higher bar. People don't think of other large companies and say, "Oh my god, they treated me poorly!" No, they say, "They treated me poorly, and that's what I expected."

LXF: Our lives are in Google...

BF: Right. So if you say, "I don't trust Google," or "I'm not happy with the direction they're going," or whatever, you can take your data – your trust – and go somewhere else with it.

LXF: How popular has it been? Do lots of people use the service?

BF: Not a lot of people – we've been liberating data for years, and it's sort of like an emergency stairwell on a building. In the case of a fire drill, you take the stairwell out, but every day you use the elevator.

So it's not something that people use frequently, but the response we've got from users when they've heard about it is astounding. People have been really excited about it. They see it as a commitment – putting your money where your mouth is, so to speak.


First published in Linux Format Issue 154

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