Google Pressures Facebook over Data Portability

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2010-11-06

Google Pressures Facebook over Data Portability

Google Nov. 5 moved to strong-arm Facebook into making its data more portable, barring the social network from automatically importing Gmail contacts.

Google allows its users to transfer data generated in its Web services to other Websites, part of the company's Data Liberation Front program.

Google with its Contacts Data API has also allowed companies such as Facebook to pull Gmail users' contacts from the service, helping users of the social network instantly populate contacts when they set up their accounts.

This practice, which allows users to type in their Gmail user name and password as part of the Facebook signup process, saves users the hassle of manually importing contacts.

However, Facebook is more protective of its contact information. The company, citing end-user privacy concerns, does not freely grant users the freedom to export their contact data to other Websites. Instead, it has cut private deals to let users of Microsoft Live Hotmail and Yahoo Mail import Facebook contact data.

To that end, Google Nov. 4 altered its Google Contacts Data API terms of service to prevent Facebook and other companies from automatically pulling Gmail contacts into their service.

Google will allow companies that leverage its API to let users export their data from Google as long as these companies enable the same practice of exporting data, including contacts. Enforcement is on a case-by-case basis.

In other words, Google is calling for a quid pro quo on contact data. Websites such as Facebook that don't allow users to import and export contact info easily leave users in a "data dead end," a Google spokesperson told eWEEK:

"We have decided to change our approach slightly to reflect the fact that users often aren't aware that once they have imported their contacts into sites like Facebook they are effectively trapped."

Google Challenges Facebooks Data Stance


In accordance with Google's Data Liberation Front program, users will still be able to export their Gmail contacts to their computers in a machine-readable format. Users may then upload those contacts into Facebook.  

"It's important that when we automate the transfer of contacts to another service, users have some certainty that the new service meets a baseline standard of data portability," the Google spokesperson said. "We hope that reciprocity will be an important step toward creating a world of true data liberation-and that this move will encourage other Websites to allow users to automate the export of their contacts as well."

Google's implication in the clause is clear: Those who fail to share contact data the way Google does don't support data portability. A phrase used to reward companies that share user data is the term "open" and to punish those who don't is "closed."

That is the public relations weapon Google is now wielding against Facebook, which poses the first great threat to Google's online ad opportunities. With 500 million-plus users, Facebook is growing and finding interesting ways to monetize its massive network.

Google, which relies on machine-driven algorithms to power its search and ad products, has struggled to match Facebook's social software prowess.

By revising its Contacts API, Google could crimp Facebook's growth plans, giving it time to cultivate its own social network layers, code-named Google Me. 

Interestingly, Google CEO Eric Schmidt may have signaled this move in September when he told the media that while Google desired to access Facebook's contact lists, the company would find ways to get the data.

He did not mention strong-arming Facebook for the data-which Google is clearly doing here-as one of those methods.

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