Facebook, Google Spar over Open vs. Closed Data

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2010-11-10

Facebook, Google Spar over Open vs. Closed Data

It sure has gotten ugly between Google and Facebook with regard to data portability, an industry catch-phrase used to describe the ability for users to import and export data from Web services such as social networks.

Breaking its code of silence regarding Google's allegations that it is a closed network, a Facebook engineer Nov. 9 lashed out at the search engine, accusing it of being open where it is convenient.

Google responded by warning users who try to pull Gmail data into Facebook that they won't be able to get it out.

This is the latest in a scrum over data that goes back three years when Facebook declined to join Google's OpenSocial effort or endorse Google Friend Connect. Here's how it started.

Google Nov. 4 changed its Contacts Data API (section 5.8) that prevents companies from letting users import Gmail data where the companies don't offer comparable import and export tools.

Interestingly, Google said it would only enforce this new policy on a case-by-case basis, so as not harm fledgling companies looking to leverage the vast Gmail network.

Google made its change to apply data portability pressure to Facebook, which let users automatically populate their accounts with their Google Gmail contacts but does not let users take their contacts information outside the network.

Interestingly, while Google ceased to let Facebook users automatically harvest Gmail contacts, it provided them an olive branch. Users could leverage Google's "data liberation" tool to download their Gmail contacts to their computers in a ZIP file, then upload those contacts into Facebook. 

Facebook declined to speak publicly about the matter but within a few days of Google's API change, the company installed an easy download button that deep links to Google's own data liberation tool. The workaround effectively let users continue to automatically import Gmail contacts to Facebook.   

Google Stuck With Facebooks Move

Not only did Facebook snub Google again, but it did so using Google's own API. Not only is Facebook's move embarrassing for Google, but it is in an untenable position: it can't very well disable its export API without looking hypocritical.

A Google spokesperson told eWEEK Nov. 9:

"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."

In the comments section after a TechCrunch blog post on the matter Nov. 9, Facebook Platform engineer Mike Vernal ripped Google for being hypocritical.

Vernal noted that Google in October 2009 broke its own export tool by preventing its orkut social network users from exporting contact data to Facebook.

"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," Vernal wrote.

Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan ripped Facebook, noting that Facebook lets Yahoo and Microsoft take its data under an agreement, but not Google through Gmail.

Google took the last shot at Facebook Nov. 10. When users of the social network move to import their contact information using Google's liberation tool on Facebook, they see this message:

"You have been directed to this page from a site that doesn't allow you to re-export your data to other services, essentially locking up your contact data about your friends," Google said. "So once you import your data there, you won't be able to get it out."

Grab some popcorn and stay tuned. This battle is far from over.


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