Armed with a symbolic pair of red bolt cutters, Brian Fitzpatrick has the job of helping people quit Google.
Fitzpatrick founded and leads a six-person team of Google engineers called the Data Liberation Front, which since 2007 has been developing ways to let users “unlock,” or export, data such as photos, e-mails, and contact lists that they store on Google’s servers. The team’s website offers directions for retrieving data from 33 Google services, including Google Docs and Google Plus, and it created Google Takeout, a speedy link for downloading files from several popular services.
Extracting your data this way can be a first step toward closing a Google account for good. “When you put data into any cloud service, you’re putting trust in [it],” says Fitzpatrick. “You need a way to revoke that trust.”
Despite its subversive name, however, the Data Liberation Front isn’t really encouraging anyone to leave Google. Instead, the project is part of a wider strategy the company is using to give users a greater sense of control. That could go a long way towards quelling consumer privacy worries and avoiding government regulation.
Internet users widely fear that companies will abuse the information they collect about individuals online. Yet paradoxically, few people bother to read privacy agreements, or even set strong passwords, before signing up for online services. Some studies suggest that this is because privacy isn’t what people really pine for. According to a 2010 survey by Fujitsu, 91 percent of consumers want to decide how data collected about them online gets used.
While companies aren’t ready to give consumers control over how data gets sold to advertisers, more are now letting people see the troves of data collected about them. In April, for instance, after reaching an agreement with privacy regulators in Ireland, Facebook expanded the amount of data available to members who choose to download an archive of their account history.
Google’s Data Liberation Front isn’t widely known. It is based in Chicago, far from Google headquarters, and it doesn’t have a marketing budget of its own. Even so, its efforts have taken on a growing role in Google’s public-relations efforts. Google chairman Eric Schmidt cited the data liberation tools during testimony last September before a congressional committee investigating whether Google is a Web monopoly. He told lawmakers that Google makes it easy for users to go elsewhere because “Loyalty, not lock-in” is a pillar of its business philosophy.