The big new European data-privacy law known as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is here, and it's ushered in a host of changes to the way companies treat your personal information.
One of the consumer benefits of GDPR is that it requires companies to make it possible for users to pack up their data and leave if they don't like the service they're using. You shouldn't be trapped into keeping an account with a certain company just because you don't want to lose access to photos you've stored there over the years, the theory goes — you should be able to move your data to whatever service you prefer.
In order to comply with the law, companies large and small are introducing data download tools. But actually transferring your stuff from one platform to another is still more annoying than it should be — you still have to deal with bulk downloads and conflicting file formats, and most platforms haven't made really good portability features yet.
Although they have made it possible for users to download their data, actually porting it over to the service you want to use is pretty much up to you. And for some services, like Facebook, there's not a meaningful competitor waiting for you to make the switch.
These tools ought to be better, and hopefully they will improve over time as companies adjust to GDPR. As Mozilla points out, GDPR should be a floor on which companies build, not the ceiling that marks the limit of privacy and data portability.
"The GDPR provides a baseline set of rules, which helpfully lay the groundwork for more ethical approaches to data collection and processing. It's is a step in the right direction, but the devil will be in the details for most organisations," Mozilla's MJ Kelly writes. "New privacy controls, even if they technically comply with the GDPR, won't help if they are too difficult to use and if organisations aren't committed to the underlying principles that shaped this regulation."
But for now, here are some of the available data portability features.
You can already extract a comprehensive package of data from your Google account using the Takeout tool, which launched back in 2011. Takeout lets you download your email, photos, contacts, calendar, Google Drive documents and more, all in one fell swoop. This goofy video Google made back when Takeout launched explains how it works:
One of the nicest features Google offers is the ability to transfer your data directly to another cloud storage service like Dropbox or Box. Most services force you to download a sizeable data package and then re-upload it to the new service of your choosing, which makes switching services more than a little inconvenient. In Takeout, you can opt to move your data straight to another service or just download it to your hard drive.
Takeout lets you get access to a broad range of data, but there are still Google products that it doesn't include. If you have an Android device, for instance, you can get some device data here, and Google Home data here.
For iPhone devotees, Apple is probably the biggest hoarder of data — the company has all your photos, contacts, call logs and voicemails, iMessage metadata, and iTunes purchase history. If you use features like Health or Keychain, Apple might also have particularly sensitive information about you, like your health data or your passwords.
Apple just launched a tool to allow users to download their data, but for now it's only available to users in the European Union and a few European nations outside the EU. Access to the tool will roll out internationally later this year, Apple says.
The company also gives users the option to delete all their data — but be careful, because once you do this, there's no way to get it back.
Facebook and Instagram have rolled out improved data portability tools in the last few weeks. But Facebook's suite of apps is the most frustrating when it comes to portability. Sure, you can download your data. But where are you going to put it next?
Facebook's data export is pretty comprehensive — users can expect to get their photos and status updates as well as lots of other interesting stuff such as likes, search history, and information about advertisers who have targeted them.
But as TechCrunch points out, Facebook has clung tightly to users' social graphs, making it especially difficult for its users to find their friends on other social networks even as it has slurped up social graph data from users' email and phone contacts.
Instagram's data portability tool lets you take your photos, videos, and messages with you if you choose to leave, but it doesn't sound like you'll be able to take comments or other data.
Amazon often gets overlooked in discussions about data collection, but the company holds a ton of information about your location and shopping habits. If you own an Echo, the company also has access to recordings of you in your home — which didn't work out particularly well for this couple — and if you're a web developer, chances are you have some data stored in Amazon Web Services.
Amazon doesn't have a central tool for data downloads, which is a little irritating, but you can get archives of your shopping history and Alexa recordings. Depending on what Amazon services you use, you'll have to dig around on the company's various support pages to find and download the exact data you're looking for.