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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