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Google Data Liberation Front Fights 'Evil' Lock-In

To provide greater awareness of its effort to "liberate" data, Google has launched a Web site and blog for its Data Liberation Front.
Google on Monday unveiled a blog and a Web site to document its campaign for data portability, a move that comes as the company is being assailed by competitors, interest groups, and the government for its online ad dominance and its digital book ambitions.

Google's Data Liberation Front blog and Web site give a formal home and online face to the company's two-year old effort to end data lock-in, whereby users have limited or no ability to move their data from one online service to another.

According to a Google spokesperson, the data liberation initiative is unrelated to the public battle to thwart the company's goals in other areas.

In a phone interview, Brian Fitzpatrick, the Google engineer who has been spearheading the initiative, allowed that there's a "synergy" between Google's public policy efforts and the data liberation project. But he stressed that Google's data liberation effort exists primarily to make life easier for users of online services.

Fitzpatrick's initial post on the data liberation blog cites Google CEO Eric Schmidt's words on the subject as inspiration for the project: "How do you be big without being evil? We don't trap end users. So if you don't like Google, if for whatever reason we do a bad job for you, we make it easy for you to move to our competitor."

The implication is that some of Google's competitors aren't nearly willing to let their users escape. "Unfortunately, not all Web services make it this easy for you to take your data out of their services," explained Fitzpatrick in a blog post. "They charge you a fee or make you jump through technology hoops if you want to leave. But we believe that letting you leave our services easily actually helps us make those services better for you. Rather than locking in our users artificially, it makes us earn our users' loyalty by building great products and constantly improving them."

As examples of such services, Fitzpatrick pointed to Twitter and Facebook. "How do you get your tweets out of Twitter?" he asked, and noted that Facebook allows you to import contacts from other services but does not provide a way out.

The Data Liberation Front Web site offers a link to a set of Google Moderator pages where one can suggest software from Google or other vendors that would benefit from liberation.

Google acknowledges that not all of its products are "liberated" yet. It says that it's about two-thirds of the way through delivering an escape mechanism across its product line. According to Fitzpatrick, liberation is coming to Google Docs and Spreadsheets, which at present don't have a batch export mechanism.

Google's interest in liberated data isn't simply support for user rights. It's also necessary to build a bridge to cloud computing. In June, for example, the company introduced Google Apps Sync for Microsoft Outlook, connector software that allows users of the Microsoft Outlook client to use Outlook with, and move their e-mail data to, Google Apps.

While Fitzpatrick stresses that data liberation is a goal in and of itself that Google supports, he acknowledges that it has some relevance to the company's broader strategic goals.

"Part of it is as cloud computing is growing, we're seeing some people being reticent to put their data in the cloud because they didn't know they can't get it out again," he said.

The company's "Going Google" campaign to entice enterprise users to switch to Google Apps depends on the portability of data. Business users "Going Google" will have baggage to bring from other services. Google's ability to ingest that data is critical for a successful migration.

InformationWeek has published an in-depth report on the public cloud, digging into the gritty details of cloud computing services from a dozen vendors. Download the report here (registration required).