Arizona Public Radio | Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Why you can't transfer social media followers from one account to another


When a mobile phone user decides to change carriers, they get to keep the phone number. If you switch from T-Mobile to Verizon, for example, the number belongs to you, not the company. It wasn't always this way. It became so in recent decades by a change in the law. The law says something different, though, when it comes to people's lives online. In recent months, many people have switched social media platforms but had to leave their followers behind, and the same can be true with other kinds of data. So let's discuss this with Shane Tews, who's a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and has studied data portability, as it's called, for years. Good morning.

SHANE TEWS: Good morning, Steve. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: This came up in conversation because a lot of people, of course, are abandoning Twitter. They're unhappy with what's happening at Twitter. But they find it hard to switch to some other platform. How would data portability change that, at least in theory?

TEWS: Well, there's a couple things you brought up in your intro. One is - what you're talking about is local number portability. It's known as LNP. And they worked the kinks out in that process about 15, 20 years ago. We don't have a version of that for social media platforms yet, but there is a definite drive, by specifically the European Union in their Digital Markets Act, to try to find a way for citizens to be able to port more of their information along.

INSKEEP: We give information to all kinds of companies online, and those companies may well sell our information to other companies to profit off of it. So they are able to move our information around, but we can't necessarily choose to move our information around or to hold it to ourselves.

TEWS: It's a permission that you give in those terms of use. The last one I looked at was 87 pages. So they're buried in there. Somewhere on page 36 says, by the way, now that you're on board, we're going to sell your data. And that is one of the reasons why there is a large movement to go to a national privacy law here in the United States because the rest of the world has moved there. I think there's definitely an appetite now for consumers to be choosier about the information that they share on these different platforms. And part of the challenge of that, though, is that we don't have one set of regulations for these companies to be able to build towards in their contracts. They are having to deal with - currently, California has the strongest privacy laws, but you're seeing privacy laws pop up all around the United States, but they vary, which makes it cumbersome to build an architecture around that because you don't have one legal platform that you're working on.

INSKEEP: What would you like to see in the United States?

TEWS: I would like to see one set of rules that we can use to govern our information flow. I - up until the real height of social media, I was fine with the way we do this in what we call verticals. So your health care was protected much stronger than my retail information, as was my banking information - had much stronger rules on it and had their own regulators in that space. And now that so much information is becoming public and, again, going to those third parties, when I sign that terms of use, once it goes to a third party, I really lose control of it as a consumer. And the national privacy law would allow us to build guidance and belts and suspenders around that information, as well as the importance of transparency and accountability. And at some point, maybe being able to, you know, access that information and change it, similar to what Meta allows you to do - you can go in and you can actually curate it as an individual consumer.

INSKEEP: Shane Tews of the American Enterprise Institute, thanks so much.

TEWS: Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF L.DRE'S "GRAVITY FALLS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.