Nice Move, Google — What Took You So Long?

In a move that is being interpreted by many as a cannon shot across Facebook’s bow, Google (s goog) has changed the terms of service on its contacts API — the programming interface that allows developers to automatically pull your contacts from Gmail and other services. ¬†While the description of the change is somewhat opaque, the meaning is simple: Third-party apps and services can’t pull data from Google without allowing Google to do the same with their data. Think of it as a declaration of data reciprocity. Depending on how you feel about Google and its vast reach and quasi-monopolistic status, this move is going to seem like:

  • an attempt to impose Google’s vision of how the Internet should operate on helpless little companies and competitors like Facebook
  • an attempt to force openness on companies who might otherwise want to keep your data locked down within a walled garden (this is clearly the view that Google itself has, not surprisingly).

I lean towards the second of those viewpoints. Too many services want to be a roach motel for your data. They will take the data, and make use of it for their own purposes, but they don’t want to make it easy for you to take it out.

Facebook Is Data Greedy

Facebook is a classic example. It’s obvious that the company sees the user data that it collects, whether it’s email addresses or connections between users — i.e., the “social graph” — as the core of what it has to offer both users and advertisers. But it doesn’t make it easy for you to get all of your information and activity back out of the Facebook universe. Yes, you can now download some of your content, including photos and wall posts, but you can’t download the email addresses and other info of your contacts. In other words, it’s not true data portability.

In the past, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said the company believes in data portability in principle, but said¬†there are privacy issues involved in giving you access to all of your friends’ email addresses and other data. So why is it okay for Facebook to have it, but not the person who created those connections?

It’s interesting that one of the factors that kept Apple from allowing the automatic import of Facebook contacts into Ping, according to comments from Steve Jobs, was that the company’s terms for making use of this kind of data were “too onerous.” Facebook seems to see its control over that data as giving it a pretty big bargaining chip when it comes to dealing with other services.

The bottom line is this: To me, the contact info of my friends is *my* social graph — not Facebook’s social graph. I should be able to take it wherever I wish. My only criticism of Google’s move is that it has taken way too long. The issue of data openness and data portability with respect to Facebook arguably first blew up in 2008, when Robert Scoble got in trouble for trying to scrape his personal info. Why has it taken two years for Google to make such a change? In that time period, Facebook has gone from less than 100 million users to over half a billion, and that kind of influence is going to make it easier for the company to just ignore the whole data portability issue.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Giuseppe Bognani