Facebook formalizes reciprocity policy and clearly prohibits replicating core features

Facebook today amended its platform policy to formalize its stance toward which types of apps can use its data and when. The company clarified two key points: developers may not use its platform if they replicate core functionality of Facebook or if they offer social experiences but do not enable people to share their activity back with people on Facebook.

The update comes in response to a number of situations in the past week where Facebook restricted developers’ access to certain data. Facebook previously had policies against “competing social networks” exporting its data, but the definition of social network could be up for debate, for instance in the case of Voxer, a voice messaging app that claims not to be a social network but was blocked from using Facebook’s friend finder feature last week.

At the time, Facebook spokespeople told the press that the company didn’t want developers duplicating their functionality and taking data out of Facebook but not sharing any back. We critiqued the social network for regulating its platform this way without making this position explicit in its policies. Now Facebook has put this in writing in section I.10:

Reciprocity and Replicating core functionality: (a) Reciprocity: Facebook Platform enables developers to build personalized, social experiences via the Graph API and related APIs. If you use any Facebook APIs to build personalized or social experiences, you must also enable people to easily share their experiences back with people on Facebook. (b) Replicating core functionality: You may not use Facebook Platform to promote, or to export user data to, a product or service that replicates a core Facebook product or service without our permission.

This replaces the previous language:

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.

In general, the change benefits developers by being more specific. However, it does not fully explain Facebook’s decision to restrict friend-finding access for Twitter’s video sharing app Vine. The ban was more understandable under the policy against “competing social networks” but doesn’t hold up as “replicating core functionality,” especially because Vine does allow users to share their six-second videos to Facebook. It even does so using Facebook’s Open Graph protocol, which makes the data it shares back to Facebook more structured.

In a blog post, Facebook Director of Platform Partnerships and Operations Justin Osofsky said that most developers should “keep doing what you’re doing,” noting that games, music, fitness, news and general lifestyle apps have been successfully using the platform to “create personalized and social experiences, and easily share what they’re doing in your apps with people on Facebook.”

When it comes to social networks, communication apps and other self-expression type services, however, Facebook is not willing to let its data be used without getting anything in return. Osofsky calls out apps that “replicate our functionality or bootstrap their growth in a way that creates little value for people on Facebook, such as not providing users an easy way to share back to Facebook.”

This applies to Yandex’s mobile search app Wonder, which had its data access blocked shortly after it launched Thursday. Not only does the app replicate aspects of Graph Search, it violates an existing policy stating, “You must not include data obtained from us in any search engine or directory without our written permission.”

The danger for many developers, though, is that Facebook is notorious for incorporating features that initially gained popularity as third-party apps: voice messaging, ephemeral messaging, Q&A, check-ins and others. The idea that a developer could build a new experience integrating Facebook and then have that component suddenly taken away when the social network decides to get into that business could be a major deterrent for building on the platform.

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