Google’s Data Liberation Front (Part 1)

11/27/2012 9:21:48 AM

We stumble upon a team dedicated to personal data access and transparency.

These days most of us have sizeable amounts of personal information stored on the web. Whether it be emails, documents, images, music files or ebooks, the trend is to rely more and more on the contents of cloud-based servers. Keeping tabs on all this information isn’t easy. Managing it is an even bigger issue.

Description: The DLF Logo

The DLF Logo

The ability to view, download and delete cloud-stored information is often heavily restricted. Try to uncover exactly what details have been captured and stored and you’ll invariably be confronted by a wall of silence. Why? Well, the value of personalized data to organizations like Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon is immense. If a user cannot move their information en masse, they are far less likely to move to a rival service. However, there is a small band of individuals whose goal it is to liberate your personal data (or at least the stuff Google holds) and they call themselves the Data Liberation Front.

Never heard of the Data Liberation Front? You’re not alone, neither had I until quite recently. So, what’s their story?

A Message From The CEO

It all started with a company talk given by Google CEO Eric Schmidt in which he said, “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.”

Description: Google CEO Eric Schmidt

Google CEO Eric Schmidt

In the audience, Brian Fitzpatrick listened intently. Despite being a Google employee for quite a few years, Fitzpatrick was still seeking a project to make his own. Schmidt’s words were a catalyst for Fitzpatrick. He started to think about gathering together a small team, whose focus would be to provide users with a straightforward exit path from Google products and services, if they so desired.

The underlying concept was that delivering such a service would push Google’s engineers to develop products that were always equal to, or better, than any of their competitors. As Fitzpatrick later said, “If we make it even easier for people to leave our products, we’re going to be forced to iterate even more quickly, and make our products better.”

With so much resting on the retention of personal data, you might think embarking down this path would be difficult to say the least. Fitzpatrick certainly had some doubts. Even on the way to Schmidt’s office to discuss the idea, he considered if he might get fired. To Schmidt’s credit, the answer was a resounding ‘Go ahead’.

Fitzpatrick immediately started to build an internal Google engineering team and called it the Data Liberation Front (or DLF).

The Challenge

Right from the start, the DLF came across as a rather subversive group with a distinct identity. The name is a derivative of The Judean People’s Front, which originated from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. While the logo (see image) was chosen to emphasis the freedom fighting nature of their mission and philosophy - a theme also used in their quirky promotional video (see Links box out).

With so many Google products and services the team faced a considerable challenge. Although Google already had a rich collection of low-level programming interfaces, they didn’t always fit the bill. And delivering a well-integrated solution, which also incorporates appropriate levels of security, isn’t the simplest task in the world. As a result it’s taken quite a while for the project to get off the ground.

Nevertheless, last year the DLF website ( appeared to showcase the fruits of their efforts. However, well over a year later, visit any Google product or service website and you won’t find any mention of the DLF team or their technology. So, it’s not surprising many Google users are completely unaware of the DLF’s activities and the services they offer.

And that’s where this article comes in. So, let’s examine what’s available.

Description: The DLF Team (with Brian Fitzpatrick centre-seated)

The DLF Team (with Brian Fitzpatrick centre-seated)

Google Takeout

No, Google isn’t moving into the pizza business. Google Takeout is a DLF engineered service to download data stored against a number of Google products. Which ones are supported? Popular products include GMail Contacts, Docs, Picasa Web Albums and Voice. In addition there’s support for social-centric products such as Buzz, a list of your +1’s sites and Google+ elements such as Profile, Circles and Stream (see the box outs for a full list).

The DLF team have ensured the takeout process is a pretty straightforward operation. Simply visit the Google Takeout website (, sign in with your account information and click on the ‘Create Archive’ button. This will automatically generate a zip file containing data from all the products listed - something that might take a little while depending on how much information you’ve stored. This zip file can then be downloaded with a single click.

While it’s quick, there are a few issues. Wander through the zip file contents and you’ll soon notice a lack of consistency. Photos and images in the Picasa Web Album are neatly arranged in separate folders. But, for some reason, Google Docs are extracted into a single folder regardless of the organizational structure you applied online.

To gain a little more control you can select individual items via the ‘Choose Services’ tab. This approach will present additional configuration opportunities.

Take Google Docs for example. There’s an extra ‘Configure...’ option (see image) which offers control over the file types. For instance, your text documents can be downloaded as plain text, Microsoft Word, Open Office, RTF or PDF files. Drawings can be converted to JPEG, PNG, Scaleable Vector Graphics (SVG) or PDF formats. Similar options exist for presentations and spreadsheets. Select the Voice product and your download will contain MP3 files for voice mail audio and textual transcripts of each message.

The DLF website states they will try to offer open standard file formats wherever possible, to aid cross-platform and multi-application portability. GMail contacts, for example, are saved into ‘.vcf’ format file, which can be imported into numerous online email services, plus many desktop, smartphone and tablets email apps. With a PC running Microsoft Windows or Mac OS X, accessing it as easy as right clicking the file.


DLF website:

DLF Blog:

Google Takeout:

DLF Video:


Takeout Product List

·         +1s

·         Buzz

·         Contacts

·         Circles

·         Docs

·         Google+ Profile

·         Google+ Stream

·         Picasa Web Albums

·         Voice


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