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Summary:

In a clear shot at Facebook’s walled garden, Google has changed the terms of its contacts API – which developers use to pull information from Google services – so that anyone using it has to provide the same access. The question is, what took so long?

In a move that is being interpreted by many as a cannon shot across Facebook’s bow, Google has changed the terms of service on its contacts API — the programming interface that allows developers to automatically pull your contacts from Gmail and other services.  While the description of the change is somewhat opaque, the meaning is simple: Third-party apps and services can’t pull data from Google without allowing Google to do the same with their data. Think of it as a declaration of data reciprocity. Depending on how you feel about Google and its vast reach and quasi-monopolistic status, this move is going to seem like:

  • an attempt to impose Google’s vision of how the Internet should operate on helpless little companies and competitors like Facebook
  • an attempt to force openness on companies who might otherwise want to keep your data locked down within a walled garden (this is clearly the view that Google itself has, not surprisingly).

I lean towards the second of those viewpoints. Too many services want to be a roach motel for your data. They will take the data, and make use of it for their own purposes, but they don’t want to make it easy for you to take it out.

Facebook Is Data Greedy

Facebook is a classic example. It’s obvious that the company sees the user data that it collects, whether it’s email addresses or connections between users — i.e., the “social graph” — as the core of what it has to offer both users and advertisers. But it doesn’t make it easy for you to get all of your information and activity back out of the Facebook universe. Yes, you can now download some of your content, including photos and wall posts, but you can’t download the email addresses and other info of your contacts. In other words, it’s not true data portability.

In the past, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said the company believes in data portability in principle, but said there are privacy issues involved in giving you access to all of your friends’ email addresses and other data. So why is it okay for Facebook to have it, but not the person who created those connections?

It’s interesting that one of the factors that kept Apple from allowing the automatic import of Facebook contacts into Ping, according to comments from Steve Jobs, was that the company’s terms for making use of this kind of data were “too onerous.” Facebook seems to see its control over that data as giving it a pretty big bargaining chip when it comes to dealing with other services.

The bottom line is this: To me, the contact info of my friends is *my* social graph — not Facebook’s social graph. I should be able to take it wherever I wish. My only criticism of Google’s move is that it has taken way too long. The issue of data openness and data portability with respect to Facebook arguably first blew up in 2008, when Robert Scoble got in trouble for trying to scrape his personal info. Why has it taken two years for Google to make such a change? In that time period, Facebook has gone from less than 100 million users to over half a billion, and that kind of influence is going to make it easier for the company to just ignore the whole data portability issue.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Giuseppe Bognani

  1. Whether it was late or not, this is a big decision by someone link Google pertaining to someone like FB. Google could have jumped the gun and called them out but in my mind they showed wisdom in letting it go this long by reeling out plenty of rope for these greedy kids to hang themselves.

    Google’s stance looks exactly the way they wanted to look, like they finally had to ‘stoop’ to FB’s level. In my mind F_qk FB, I dont deal with them and their shady ethics!

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Ric. I know some people are arguing that Google is doing this for its own selfish interests, which may be true, but I still think there’s an important principle at stake.

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  2. I’ll be impressed when Google opens their search and ad api’s. Until then all of their “openness” mantra is nothing but PR BS.

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  3. FYI, it is possible to download your Facebook friends’ e-mail addresses using the Yahoo contact import tool: http://theharmonyguy.com/2010/11/05/how-to-export-your-facebook-friends-e-mail-addresses/

    Granted, that’s not the same as Facebook offering the feature directly, but it does work in the mean time without resorting to scraping.

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    1. Thanks for that — I wasn’t aware that was possible. In fact, I’m kind of surprised that Facebook allows that to happen, given how the company clearly feels about allowing users to download other people’s email addresses etc.

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  4. [...] 600 million users. More curious is why Google waited so long to set this requirement, a point that Matthew Ingram articulated this morning. For the time being this is simple a terms of service change, however we’ll have [...]

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  5. Considering that Zuckerberg started Facebook by siphoning off the information of Harvard students from the web servers of other dormitories (sorry, “houses”), the posturing of Facebook to consider the contacts of an individual on Facebook as Facebook’s “property” — and not that of the individual who shared it — is patently hypocritical and self-serving.

    I completely agree with Om’s emphatic observation:

    “The bottom line is this: to me, the contact info of my friends is *my* social graph — not Facebook’s social graph.”

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    1. That was actually my observation, but thanks :-)

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  6. The updated API TOS states that “By accessing Content through the Contacts Data API or Portable Contacts API for use in your service or application, you are agreeing to enable your users to export their contacts data to other services or applications of their choice”. This is not the same as giving Google access to data, as you article suggests.

    I think this is a good move from Google’s part, clearly inline with their data portability efforts.

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  7. Facebook is correct in abstract about privacy concerns (ie, the right to pull your social graph should end where other’s privacy settings are concerned).

    They’re providing a complex service with privacy concerns but they don’t have an easy way of navigating this privacy web.

    Google’s dictum will force them to come up with something more consumer friendly… in the meanwhile, I don’t “connect” any of my services, that’s what my personal computers are for.

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  8. Facebook recently turned off part of their API allowing developers to get the list of people who Like their Pages: http://bugs.developers.facebook.net/show_bug.cgi?id=12880

    It seems like they are more interested in controlling your graph than in allowing you to manage and interact with it…

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  9. Do no evil.

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  10. Big deal. I can download contacts file from gmail and upload it to fb

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