I don’t really understand most of the calls to “regulate” Facebook. There are some concrete proposals on the table regarding political ads and updating antitrust for the data age, but other punditry is largely consumer advocacy kabuki. For example, blunting the data Facebook can use to target ads or tune newsfeed hurts the user experience, and there’s really no stable way to draw a line around what’s appropriate versus not. These experiences are too fluid. But while I want keep the government out of the product design business, there’s an alternate path which has merit: establish a baseline for the control a person has over their data on these systems.
Today the platforms give their users a single choice: keep your account active or delete your account. Sure, some expose small amounts of ad targeting data and let you manipulate that, but on the whole they provide limited or no control over your ability to “start over.” Want to delete all your tweets? You have to use a third party app. Want to delete all your Facebook posts? Good luck with that. Nope, once you’re in the mousetrap, there’s no way out except account suicide.
BUT is that really fair? Over multiple years, we all change. Things we said in 2011 may or may not represent us today. And these services evolve – did we think we’d be using Facebook as a primary source of news consumption and private messaging back when you were posting baby photos? Did you think they’d also own Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus and so on when you created accounts on those services? We’re the frogs, slow boiling in the pot of water.
What if every major platform was required to have something between Create Account and Delete Account? One which allows you to keep your user name but selectively delete the data associated with the account? For Facebook, you could have a set of individual toggles to Delete All Friend Connections, Delete All Posts, Delete All Targeting Data. Each of these could be used individually or together to give you a fresh start. Maybe you want to preserve your social graph but wipe your feed? Maybe you want to keep your feed but rebuild your graph.
Or for Twitter: Delete All Likes, Delete All Tweets, Delete All Follows, Delete All Targeting Data.
Or for YouTube: Delete All Uploads, Delete All Subscriptions, Delete All Likes, Delete All Targeting Data.
The technical requirements to develop these features are only complicated in the sense of making sure you’re deleting the data everywhere it’s stored, otherwise every product already support “null” state – it looks very much like a new account. This leads me to believe that the only reason these features don’t exist today are (a) it would be bad for business and (b) actual or perceived lack of consumer demand. Anecdotally, it feels like (b) is changing – more and more people I know wipe their tweets, talk about deleting their histories, and so on. Imagine the ability to stage a “DataBoycott” by clearing your history if you think Facebook is taking liberties with your privacy and such. This is what keeps power in check.
So regulators, you want to help consumers? Don’t prevent tech companies from building the best products they can. Instead require them to consistently provide an escape hatch by giving their users the ability to START OVER without having to fully delete their accounts.