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Just who’s data is it anyway?

In Why is Flickr afraid of Zooomr? TechChrunch reports that Flickr has refused the request of competing start-up Zooomr to use their API, which would allow Flickr users to more easily transfer their images and data to the other site. As TechCrunch puts it:

"Flickr says that users own the the images and tags we enter into their system.  Apparently that doesn’t mean they have to make it easy for us to take what we own elsewhere.

When Kristopher Tate, the founder of the feature-rich startup photosharing site Zooomr (see prior coverage), asked Flickr earlier this month for access to their Commercial API, Flickr’s response by email was that “we choose not to support use of the API for sites that are a straight alternative to Flickr.”  Flickr founder Stewart Butterfield posted to a Flickr forum on Wednesday saying that when it comes to direct competitors like Zooomr, “why should we burn bandwidth and CPU cycles sending stuff directly to their servers?”"

What Google Flickr isn’t getting is that, in the Web 2.0 era, who owns data isn’t just about who owns it in theory – it’s about the ability to take the data you own and reuse it wherever you want as easily as possible. This is a point that Tate makes:

"Tate from Zooomr says that the exports are a cost of doing business, that Web 2.0 is where “the roach motel stops” and that Zooomr will always make it easy for their customers to take their data elsewhere.  That’s easy to say when you’re the underdog, but the issue does lead to some questions about data portability and web services.  Day one of the post-Gates era seems like a good time to consider such questions."

If the customer owns the data, then the company has a duty to make it as easy as possible for the customer to take that data and move it elsewhere. This is especially true of situations – like Flickr – where the metadata that the customer has added forms a lot of its value. Flickr’s value comes from the tags that the users have added, and that the users own. But if the users have no method of getting their tags – the valuable data – out of the service and directly into another competitor, then Flickr is effectively locking them into the service, something that’s very definitely NOT Web 2.0.

I doubt that this story will get as much attention from the online community as the complete non-story that was Tim O’Reilly’s problems with IT@Cork over the "ownership" of Web 2.0, but it’s far more important. In fact the question of data transportability recently led to Mark Pilgrim abandoning Mac OS X (after countless years as an Apple user) in favour of Linux, something that regrettably caused some Mac users to jump all over him. Mark is right to be concerned: there is too little thought from most computer users about protecting their data not just from viruses and crashes, but from obsolescence in the future, and from being locked in to the whims of a single company.

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  • http://www.ambivi.com Wesley McGee

    Google? Flickr is owned by Yahoo.

  • http://technovia.typepad.com Ian Betteridge


    I obviously had Google on the brain that day. I blame Nick Carr :)