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.

Neither Google nor Facebook is entirely innocent. What is unusual is about this spat is how public it is. Google has finally made a very calculated decision to publicly call Facebook out on its double standards.

As the two increasingly joust over talent, users and advertisers, expect more impressive acrobatics from both over the meaning of “openness.”

Comparing Recent Public Statements from Facebook and Google

Google, when it originally changed its terms of service. The company asked that Facebook offer its users the opportunity to send their contacts back to Gmail:

“Google is committed to making it easy for users to get their data into and out of Google products. That is why we have a data liberation engineering team dedicated to building import and export tools for users. We are not alone. Many other sites allow users to import and export their information, including contacts, quickly and easily. But sites that do not, such as Facebook, leave users in a data dead end.

So we have decided to change our approach slightly to reflect the fact that users often aren’t aware that once they have imported their contacts into sites like Facebook they are effectively trapped. Google users will still be free to export their contacts from our products to their computers in an open, machine-readable format–and once they have done that they can then import those contacts into any service they choose. However, we will no longer allow websites to automate the import of users’ Google Contacts (via our API) unless they allow similar export to other sites.

It’s important that when we automate the transfer of contacts to another service, users have some certainty that the new service meets a baseline standard of data portability. We hope that reciprocity will be an important step towards creating a world of true data liberation–and that this move will encourage other websites to allow users to automate the export of their contacts as well.”

Google, after Facebook changed its contact importer to get around the new terms of service. Instead of offering reciprocity, Facebook took advantage of a loophole, and gave users the option to download their Gmail contacts into a .CSV file and then upload them again to the social network:

“We’re disappointed that Facebook didn’t invest their time in making it possible for their users to get their contacts out of Facebook.  As passionate believers that people should be able to control the data they create, we will continue to allow our users to export their Google contacts.”

Facebook director of platform Mike Vernal responds to Google’s criticisms, pointing out that the search giant shut down its own contact exporting tools for Orkut last year:

“Less than a year ago, Google issued this statement when they blocked their own users’ ability to export their contacts from Orkut to Facebook: “Mass exportation of email is not standard on most social networks — when a user friends someone they don’t then expect that person to be easily able to send that contact information to a third party along with hundreds of other addresses with just one click.”

This functionality was not a problem when Orkut was winning in Brazil and India but, as soon as people starting preferring Facebook to Google products, Google changed its stance. First, Google simply broke their export feature and hoped people wouldn’t notice. People did notice (http://techcrunch.com/2009/10/01/google-has-a-plan-to-stop-the-mass-exodus-from-orkut-no-friend-exports-for-you/). Then, when they got called out on it, they changed their policy completely. Today, the same thing is happening with Gmail.

Openness doesn’t mean being open when its convenient for you. On Google’s website, dataliberation.org, Eric Schmidt says, “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.” How does limiting user choice honor this commitment?

Our policy has been consistent. The most important principle for Facebook is that every person owns and controls her information. Each person owns her friends list, but not her friends’ information. A person has no more right to mass export all of her friends’ private email addresses than she does to mass export all of her friends’ private photo albums.

Email is different from social networking because in an email application, each person maintains and owns their own address book, whereas in a social network your friends maintain their information and you just maintain a list of friends. Because of this, we think it makes sense for email applications to export email addresses and for social networks to export friend lists.

Facebook Platform and the Graph API enable everyone to bring their own information to millions of sites and applications, including even Google’s YouTube. It’s still a work in progress and there’s more to do, but in practice Facebook Platform is the largest scale initiative to help you move your information between services that exists today.

We strongly hope that Google turns back on their API and doesn’t come up with yet another excuse to prevent their users from leaving Google products to use ones they like better instead.”