WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Facebook Inc will allow users in the United States and Canada to transfer photos and videos to a rival tech platform for the first time - a step that could assuage antitrust concerns by giving users an option to easily leave the company’s services, the social media network said on Thursday.
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The tool lets Facebook users transfer data stored on its servers directly to another photo storage service, in this case, Google Photos - a feature known as data portability.
U.S. and Canadian users will be able to access the tool through their Facebook accounts starting Thursday. The function has already been launched in several countries including in Europe and Latin America.
It allows the social media company to give users more control over their data and respond to U.S. regulators and lawmakers who are investigating its competitive practices and allegations it has stifled competition.
The U.S. launch also comes ahead of a hearing set up by the Federal Trade Commission on Sept. 22 to examine the potential benefits and challenges of data portability. Control of data that hurts competition has become a critical topic in the antitrust debate in the United States and Europe.
Facebook’s Director of Privacy and Public Policy Steve Satterfield said over the past couple of years, the company heard calls from policymakers and regulators asking it to facilitate choice, make it easier for people to choose new providers and move their data to new services.
“So it really is an important part of the response to the kinds of concerns that drive antitrust regulation or competition regulation,” Satterfield told Reuters in an interview.
He said the company would be open to participating in the FTC hearing if the agency approaches them.
Data portability is a requirement under Europe’s privacy law called the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and California’s privacy law called the California Consumer Protection Act (CCPA).
Also, Democratic Senators Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Mark Warner of Virginia along with Republican senator Josh Hawley of Missouri introduced a bill, known as the ACCESS Act, in October, which requires large tech platforms to let their users easily move their data to other services.
Satterfield said Facebook hopes to eventually allow users to move key data such as their contacts, friend lists, etc onto another platform in a way that protects user privacy.
Facebook developed its data portability tool as a member of the Data Transfer Project - which was formed to allow web users to easily move their data between online service providers whenever they want - and counts Facebook, Alphabet’s Google, Microsoft, Twitter and Apple among its contributors.
Members of the project are also looking at letting users transfer data such as emails, playlists and events in the future, the company said.
On a call with academics and policy experts from the fields of competition and privacy on Wednesday, Facebook said it is moving deliberately on data transfer partnerships with third-parties to avoid a repeat of the Cambridge Analytica incident.
The now defunct British political consulting firm harvested the personal data of millions of Facebook users without their consent and used it for political advertising.