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Summary:

The war of words between Google and Facebook over who controls a user’s contact information has been pushed up another notch, as a member of Facebook’s engineering team argues that Google has changed its tune on data portability because it is afraid of competition from Facebook.

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The tit-for-tat spat between Facebook and Google over who controls a user’s contact information just got ramped up another notch: an engineer with Facebook’s platform team has posted a comment on a blog post about the brouhaha, accusing Google of changing its tune on data portability because of the competitive threat posed by Facebook. According to Mike Vernal, the social network has no intention of changing its mind on its approach to email addresses, and he makes it clear that Facebook believes it is more open than Google where it counts.

While Google wants users of Facebook to be able to download or export the email addresses of all their friends, Vernal argues that this is not up to Facebook to allow, because users own their own information — including their email address:

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.

Just to recap for those of you trying to follow along at home, Google recently changed the terms of its contacts API — which allows third-party developers to auto-import a user’s contacts — to require that anyone making use of this feature also allow the same thing in return. The web giant said it was doing this primarily because large players like Facebook weren’t allowing users to export their information (although Facebook allows you to download some of your content from the network, that doesn’t include the email addresses of your social graph).

Facebook then stuck a thumb in the web giant’s eye by linking directly to Google’s own contact-downloading tool, and asking users to download their friends’ addresses and then upload them manually to the social network. A Google spokesman said (somewhat schoolmarm-ishly) that the company was “disappointed that Facebook didn’t invest their time in making it possible for their users to get their contacts out of Facebook” and that the company believed that “people should be able to control the data they create.”

Vernal, however, says Google didn’t always believe this. Less than a year ago, he says, Google blocked users from exporting their contact info to Facebook from Orkut, and at the time, the company released a statement saying that “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.” Vernal says:

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… then, when they got called out on it, they changed their policy completely. Today, the same thing is happening with Gmail.

This may seem like a lot of playground bickering or competitive posturing between two web giants — and it clearly is that — but there is also an important question at stake: do you own the right to export your friends’ email addresses and then import them into another program? Facebook seems to be saying that it is not only okay for Google to export email addresses, but that it must do this, because it runs an email program — but because Facebook is a social network (whatever that is), it doesn’t have to play by the same rules. Does that sound fair? Not to me.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user plain_jane53177

  1. Dan Villiom Podlaski Christiansen Tuesday, November 9, 2010

    I find it ironic that Facebook is arguing that they don’t have the ‘rights’ to allow users to export information they have been granted access to. At the same time, I doubt they’d argue to their advertisers that they don’t have the ‘rights’ to grant them access to the exact same information…

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    1. And as many have pointed out already, they allow you to export email contact information through agreements with Microsoft and Yahoo.

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  2. Related to this is security issue around the process of tapping into an external site to ‘harvest’ email addresses.

    Facebook’s Invite your friends function, for example, requires users to log into their web mail account for this purpose.

    Of course ‘Facebook will not store your password.’

    The problem with this, though, is that message here is that it’s OK to share one’s log in details with a site.

    Ironically, Facebook’s own terms state:

    “You will not share your password, (or in the case of developers, your secret key), let anyone else access your account, or do anything else that might jeopardize the security of your account.”

    But it’s OK if people share account details of other accounts.

    Ultimately, Google and Facebook are bickering over the ability to market themselves more effectively without caring much about the security risks involved.

    I blogged about this some time ago…

    http://www.architxt.net/blog/new-media/is-facebook-helping-phishers-hack-email-accounts/

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  3. I’m no Facebook or Google fanboy, but I think in this case both companies are taking the right stance given the source of the respective data.

    I must have the right and ability to export my Gmail contacts because I put them there. Each email was added by me. It is my list built from my personal effort.

    The same is simply not true from my friends’ contact information in Facebook. I did not enter those friends’ email addresses. They were there as a result of those friends putting them there for my use as part of our connection on the site.

    It’s the same as an in-house list vs. a rented list for marketing purposes. An in-house list I can use as many times for as many contact methods as I like (and those contacts will allow). A rented list may only be accessed for a specified/agreed purpose, contact method, time period and number of contacts.

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  4. I just used FB’s export feature.

    For all your contacts, all you get is a plain-text list of names. No email addresses, nothing else whatsoever!

    While in FB, I can easily view whatever other information each of my contacts has allowed me to see, like, an email address or phone number, current city, schools attended, etc.

    More games and deceit from Facebook – you’ve been Zucker’d!

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  5. Facebook is just trying to defend otherwise Google is more open and supportive. Facebook knows that it is restricting its users to export contact, pictures and related data very easily….so just giving lame excuses.

    Google is more innovative and supportive.

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  6. Hmm there seem to be some shallow but distinction between them… I don’t think that it’s okay to share your email contact list publicly for example.
    I guess you can divide email address things in to two separate features. Right to contact and right to share contact. Not something you could have separated that easily with real mail and something that email kind of inherited.

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  7. Its odd that Facebook doesn’t seem to mind providing me friends’ info in their own applications. For instance, on my Nexus One, there’s a Facebook Phonebook folder that provides me instant access to all my friends’ phone numbers as they appear in Facebook (if my friends publish them anyway). For published email addresses that I have view access to, I don’t see how Google’s request is much different.

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