Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Google and Facebook Slapfight

The war on data portability has begun. First some background: over the past twenty-four hours, Facebook and Google have been in a major slap fight that could ultimately lead to a shift in the paradigm of social networking itself. Our story begins about one week ago, when Google shut off its Contacts API for Facebook. In other words, you can no longer import your Gmail contacts into Facebook. Google claimed their reasoning for this action was why should Google let Facebook import its users if Facebook is not doing the same for Google. Their reasoning is sound; data portability is one thing, but stealing users in such a unilateral manner and not expecting the other side to play hard ball is ridiculous. However, Facebook was not going to take this sitting down, so they made a quick hack and used the ability to export your Gmail contacts as a CSV file to continue contact imports. When Google responded with some harsh remarks, Facebook rebuked, "Openness doesn't mean being open when it's convenient."

Quite frankly, Facebook is just bitching because Google turned off contact imports for them. How could Facebook expect Google to keep this service on if Facebook is not giving back? Google may be all for being open, but we are still dealing business here. As much as you want to wave the banner of openness and helping the user, we are still in a cutthroat capitalist economy. Facebook knows that, which is why they are stealing from Google so readily. The worst part is that if Facebook had just worked with Google instead of against like they are doing now, the social world would be a much better place. But instead, Facebook's stubbornness is going to drive a new era of data protectionism. I would not be surprised if, in the near future, it is impossible to move your information between services because of this war. But Google is not exactly in the right here either. Though on the outside it may seem like shutting off the Contacts API for Facebook was because of data portability, in reality it is because Google is competing with Facebook, pure and simple. And if Google continues to make these vengeful moves against Facebook in the name of openness, they are going to ruin the reputation they have worked so hard to get.

The most hilarious part, though, is a comment that Mike Vernal from Facebook left as a comment on a TechCrunch article about the debacle. The comment says that Facebook's "policy has been consistent". Well that's an outright lie. He goes on further to say,
Email is different from social networking because in an email application, each person maintains and owns their own address book, whereas in a social network your friends maintain their information and you just maintain a list of friends. Because of this, we think it makes sense for email applications to export email addresses and for social networks to export friend lists.
Essentially he's saying that in email you own your friends' information while on Facebook you do not, which makes no sense. Sure on Facebook your friends maintain their own information, but it is the same with email: everybody kind of has their own email account. In essence, your address book is the email version of your friend list, and just as your address book identifies people with email addresses, your friend list identifies people with a Facebook profile. Though the uses of email and social networking services may be very different, there are some things that are fundamentally the same, and all Google is asking is the ability to find friends in your Facebook "address book", since Facebook lets you find your friends using Gmail. They are not asking to give away phone numbers or personal information, just a way to find people on one website through a connection made in another.

And to top off everything, Vernal even has the nerve to "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". Not only does Facebook ask Google to restart their parasitic relationship, but they assume that their users like Facebook better than Gmail, which, by the way, is a completely different service than Facebook last time I checked. Google better come up with a good comeback to that, because Facebook needs a reality check on their reputation, or they are going downhill for good. At this point, we can only sit and wait to see how things pan out, but a word of advice: start exporting your information, because you might not be able to do so for much longer.

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