Who owns your social graph — you or Facebook?

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Facebook’s control over the information in your social graph is in the news again. The company recently blocked a Google Chrome extension that scraped your contact info so that you could export it somewhere else, such as into Google’s new Google+ social network. The move has reignited debate over who exactly owns the information about your social graph — is it yours, or is it Facebook’s? Should you have the right to copy or move those email addresses wherever you want to, or is Facebook right to prevent you from doing so?

On Tuesday, after news broke about the Chrome extension being blocked, a Google engineer named Adam Lasnik wrote an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Google+ asking him to reconsider his views on allowing users to export their contact data, saying:

Mark Zuckerberg, you seem like a good guy… so won’t you please let us (and third parties we explicitly authorize) access our own address books in FB without jumping through hoops? I’m a long-time FB user and I currently plan to continue using it alongside Google+. But the more you try to keep me locked in, the less comfortable I am using and trusting your service.

While Lasnik’s post was widely shared and voted up in Google+, and a lot of comments supported him, his viewpoint was far from unanimous. Jeff Jarvis, for example, a journalism professor and author of an upcoming book on privacy called “Public Parts,” said that he didn’t want other people in his social graph to be exporting his email and other information without his consent:

If you put in all the data in your address book that’s one matter. If I put in the data in my listing in your address book, that’s another. I don’t want Facebook enabling you to export and use that as you wish… I absolutely agree about Facebook and other services should make our data portable: my list of friends, for example. But make sure it is our data before we demand it.

This debate is not a new one. The Chrome extension that Facebook blocked this week was originally released last fall, when the social network was embroiled in a fight with Google over whether users could export their contact information, including email addresses. As we described at the time, the fight started when Google changed the terms of its API so that any third-party that wanted to import information from the web giant’s various services had to allow its own information to be exported as well.

This was seen by many as a shot across Facebook’s bow, since the social network has never made exporting contact information easy, and a Google source confirmed at the time that the search company made a deliberate move to go after Facebook on the issue, which it sees as an important principle. Google not only allows users to export all their information from most of its services, but provides prominent links to this feature — including in Google+, where it offers a one-stop export tool called Google Takeout, a service that was developed by the company’s internal “Data Liberation Front” team.

After Google tried to block Facebook from pulling data out of its services, the social network responded by linking directly to Google’s data-export page. Google then replaced that page with a new version aimed at Facebook users called “Trap My Contacts Now,” in which it warned users that any information they exported would be controlled by Facebook, and advised them not to submit to this kind of “data protectionism.”

Facebook has not really discussed its views on the issue publicly, apart from some comments by Mark Zuckerberg at the Web 2.0 conference, where he said that Facebook was still thinking about ownership of contact info and how to deal with it. But when the Google affair first blew up, a Facebook engineer named Mike Vernal posted some comments that provided some insight into the social network’s reasoning: he said that in Facebook’s view, users do not have the right to export another person’s 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.

So is Facebook right? In some ways, the social network seems to want to have its cake and eat it too on this issue: after all, the personal information that you share with the company plays a huge role in the value that it offers to advertisers and others — which in turn helps produce the revenue that justifies the company’s estimated $50 billion market value (and allows it to provide all its services to users for free, of course). So naturally, it wants to control this information as much as possible. And yet, it allows users to export contact information if they have a Yahoo account, and it also allows them to sync their contacts, including email addresses, with their iPhone via Exchange.

So if I can import my Facebook contact information into my Yahoo Mail account or my Exchange account, and I can also sync my Facebook address book with my iPhone contact list, why can’t I move those email addresses directly into another service such as Google+? If Facebook wants to protect those who don’t want their information shared in this way, it could always send an alert to someone whose data has been exported, so that they can reconsider whether they share it and with whom. But just blocking that ability seems blatantly anti-competitive.

Facebook may claim that it is respecting the wishes of my friends to keep their information private, but to me it says more about how the company wants to control that information for its own purposes than it does about how it wants to respect the rights of users.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Gabrie Coletti

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