Facebook cuts off ‘find friends’ access for Voxer; policy vague on how other messaging apps will be treated

Facebook is restricting access to friend data for Voxer, the mobile messenger and walkie-talkie app it now identifies as a competitor, a Facebook spokesperson confirms.

Voxer told AllThingsD today that it was given 48-hour notice that it would lose access to the feature that allows users to connect with Facebook and find friends to message with Voxer. Many apps use this feature to grow their user base and make it easy for users to find value in their services, however, Facebook has a policy against competing social networks using its data this way.

Voxer says it does not consider itself a social network, and Facebook likely didn’t view them as a competing service until recently. Facebook added voice messaging to its platform earlier this month.

A Facebook spokesperson, who could not offer an official statement and asked not to be quoted directly, told us that the company’s stance is that apps that duplicate a core functionality of Facebook should not be able to take data out of Facebook without sharing anything back. That justification is not laid out explicitly in the social network’s platform policy, which simply reads:

“Competing social networks: (a) You may not use Facebook Platform to export user data into a competing social network without our permission; (b) Apps on Facebook may not integrate, link to, promote, distribute, or redirect to any app on any other competing social network.”

So far we have not heard of any other messaging app getting the same notice as Voxer, pictured right. The Facebook spokesperson said he was not sure whether other apps were facing similar situations. HeyTell, a push-to-talk app which uses Facebook very similarly to Voxer, has not responded to requests for information. Sidecar is another messaging and calling app that uses the friend finder feature, but we have not heard back from them.

Messaging apps that use the Chat API to sync with Facebook’s messaging service, such as Microsoft’s Skype and T-Mobile’s Bobsled, seem to be spared because every message within those apps creates a message within Facebook as well, thus “giving back” to Facebook. Voxer does not do this.

Messaging apps that use Facebook login to help users register faster but do not pull in their Facebook contacts also seem to be in the clear. Viber is an example. Viber, like another messaging app Kik, enable users to post about the app on Facebook to encourage friends to join, but they do not use Facebook’s API for sending invites to specific friends. Pinger integrates Facebook to sync users’ photos but it does not use the friend finder feature.

Nonetheless, Facebook’s written policy does not make these distinctions clear. There’s also no guarantee that those messaging apps will be allowed the same access in the future. It’s this ambiguous and volatile environment that makes developers wary of investing too much in building on Facebook’s platform. The idea that an app could be copied by Facebook and then lose access to features because it is suddenly a competitor is sure to give many developers pause. When the social network uses these hardball tactics against smaller developers that could be a threat to its dominance, the image of Facebook as an open platform is tarnished and fewer companies will take the risk of integrating Facebook.

We did not hear back from Voxer for comment, but the company told AllThingsD that only about a third of Voxer users sign in with Facebook and they typically use the friend finder to connect with people who already use the app. The company says engagement tends to be the same for users whether they connect with Facebook or not, so having friends data access revoked might not have a material impact.

[Update: Voxer confirmed with us that there are “negligible differences” in engagement between Facebook-connected users and users don’t link with Facebook. Voxer Director of Marketing Nicole Strada wrote, “Facebook’s unfortunate move will not have a significant impact on existing Voxer users, and will just slightly inconvenience a small sliver of users that are new to the service. But, we are sorry that a channel for engagement is being shut down by Facebook to the detriment of our common users. Less choice and freedom is always less desirable for for any service provider.”]

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