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When You Change Social Platforms, Who Controls Your Data?

Social media has a portability problem: When users leave one platform for another, none of their followers go with them. That's no small issue for governments that rely on networks to disseminate important information.

A smartphone showing the X app in the Apple Store. In the background behind the phone is the old Twitter logo in white on a light blue background.
Our life in a networked world is complicated. We often experience considerable lags as old problems get worked out even as new, often more complicated glitches pop up. The newest gremlins in maintaining our identity, privacy and agency include generative AI and our social connections online.

On that last item, we cannot take social followers with us if and when we decide its in our interests to move from one platform to another. Take the users of Twitter (which as of this writing had rebranded as X), both individuals and organizations, who became disaffected after a change in the site’s ownership. Many had spent a decade or more building a base of followers.

Government agencies have relied on the former Twitter for instant, easy and free communication, particularly in urgent situations. The numbers are not trivial. The top 10 federal agencies on Twitter have an aggregated 20 million followers. According to HubSpot, Massachusetts, Washington and Oregon have the highest use per capita of the states. Not surprisingly, New York City’s official account dominates its counterparts with 1.4 million followers. Many other cities have hundreds of thousands of followers each. Yet none of them can take — or port — a single follower with them to another platform.

A long, slow process of changing that began in 2020. Shane Tews studies data portability at the American Enterprise Institute. She told NPR, “We don’t have a version of that for social media platforms yet, but there is a definite drive, by specifically the European Union … to try to find a way for citizens to be able to port more of their information along.” (A recent proposal in Congress would bring social portability to the U.S. if passed.)

The EU regulation in question is commonly known as the Digital Markets Act, intended to make the digital economy fairer and more contestable. That would never happen here, you say. But it did!

Remember when Tommy Tutone made this chart-topping plea in 1982: “Jenny don’t change your number, 867-5309”? The song worked because Jenny could not take the number with her; 867-5309 was not hers to keep.

For Tommy and Jenny’s sake (and the rest of us), the Telecommunications Act of 1996 mandated the creation of Local Number Portability (LNP). It was complex and costly, taking until 2004 to be fully implemented. LNP is not alone. It took five years (1998-2003) to work out the final rule around security and privacy for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). The effort to safeguard the portability and privacy of consumer financial information began in 1977, and while some regulations are in place, it remains a work in progress as the fintech market reshapes how that data is used, and by whom. It is reasonable to expect that the early framework emerging around AI, which has demonstrated its ability to capture and manipulate anyone’s likeness, will need to evolve over an extended period as its prospects and pitfalls become better understood.

The early architects of digital government took a sliding scale approach to how to treat data — the more sensitive, the greater the safeguards — vertical by vertical. A quarter century later, Tews and others advocate a move to one set of rules that we can use to govern our information flow. The current thinking is that a common framework would provide guidance to all users of the data to help ensure the consumer — that is, the owner — retains control of the information that defines them.

Others point out that improved information flow increases individual agency and can make government service delivery more adaptable to the individual citizen as a multidimensional whole.

Tara Dawson McGuinness is founder of New America’s New Practice Lab and co-author of Power to the Public: The Promise of Public Interest Technology. In a conversation on our podcast, The Future in Context, McGuinness said it is vital to navigate the complex intersection of portability, privacy and citizens’ experience with their government.

“There’s plenty of opportunities to both protect the privacy of citizens while smoothing the experience and responding to people with what you know …. I think there’s plenty of space to do that. But is it a straightforward path? Absolutely not.”

This story originally appeared in the September issue of Government Technology magazine. Click here to view the full digital edition online.


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Paul W. Taylor is the Senior Editor of e.Republic Editorial and of its flagship titles - Government Technology and Governing.