Facebook, Google Offer Conflicted Definitions of Data Portability

Once again, Facebook and Google are posturing in the long-brewing debate over openness and data portability.

The latest round was triggered on Friday after Google changed its terms of service, asking that Facebook offer reciprocal access to data when the social network’s users import their contacts from Gmail. Facebook responded with a run-around; users can manually download their Gmail contacts and then re-upload them to the social network. Without banning the practice, Google responded with the rather passive-aggressive prompt below.

The very public skirmish comes as Google is building its own competing social product and has made a series of acquisitions to incubate other social projects, although sources say the company’s internal bureaucracy has made progress difficult.

Google has accused Facebook of being a “data dead end” that traps information collected from third parties. Facebook argued back that it has one of the most widely used APIs on the web and that the friend lists it shares have seeded hundreds of thousands of applications.

How Facebook, Google Strategically Employ Openness

Openness is a political term. Tech companies go out of their way to tout openness because it helps them attract developers, who fuel the value of their platforms. They want the advantages of openness without the risk of commoditizing their technology in the same way that governments want the benefits of free trade without the risk of destabilizing political rule as less competitive industries lose.

Google is open, but only in areas that are accessories to its core businesses of search and display advertising. It open-sources Android and Chrome, but does not share the formula that powers its search engine. It also uses openness and free products to undermine competitors who don’t have the scale, talent or capital to compete.

Facebook is open, but only if it is the middle-man and if its partners do not have the size or technical capability to build competitive ecosystems. It has cut off Google before; in 2008, Facebook blocked Google’s Friend Connect service from accessing its user data.

At first, Facebook’s access to Gmail users’ contacts was not a threat; years ago, Google’s senior management dismissed social networking as technically uninteresting and as a trivial fad. But as the social network has grown, so has the protected part of the web it controls and collects data from. Furthermore, Facebook is now positioned to one day launch products that could be competitive to AdSense or AdWords, Google’s key revenue streams.

Sources familiar with Google’s thinking say there was no specific trigger for the change in the company’s terms of service, except that the search giant had long tried to use the “carrot” to encourage reciprocity from Facebook. But now it was time to use the “stick.”

More than 550,000 applications depend on the Facebook Platform. But integrations with big partners like Twitter and Apple have stalled, purportedly because of issues with technical capacity. The company has also stopped short of allowing full export of data. Its new “Download Your Information” product, which lets users store a copy of their information locally, omits friends’ email addresses among other key pieces of data.

Facebook argues that it cannot pass email addresses of a users’ friends because it has — quite legitimately — privacy issues. On one side, legislators and mainstream media outlets like The Wall Street Journal have called the company out for not cracking down on developers who pass along or sell user information. On the other side, it is criticized in the technical community for not making it easy enough for users to export their information.

Yet, as SearchEngineLand’s Danny Sullivan points out, Facebook does export e-mail addresses to other partners like Microsoft and Yahoo. Facebook is willing to have double standards with other large companies that have established reputations and pose no legitimate threat to their core business.