Facebook Avoids Google’s Data Stick — For Now

Updated: Facebook has responded to Google’s (s goog) recent data blockade by effectively going around the barrier, according to a report today. Last week, Google changed the terms of use for its contacts API, which allows third-party services to pull the info from your Gmail address book automatically, and said that this would only be allowed if other services did the same — and the company has made it crystal clear that this was aimed directly at Facebook, which doesn’t provide that ability. Now Facebook is apparently using Google’s own contact-download feature to get around this blockage.

A source familiar with Google’s thinking said the company made a deliberate choice to go after Facebook on the issue of data portability. Although some observers were concerned about the impact that Google’s reciprocity statement might have on smaller players, the source said “this is not a blanket policy. [Google] is effectively enforcing it on a case-by-case basis — and Facebook is clearly the biggest, and the most closed” in terms of its data-portability policies. Google only went the API route, this source says, because attempts to convince the giant social network to open up went nowhere. “They tried the carrot approach and it didn’t work, so now they are bringing out the stick.”

Now, instead of automatically pulling in your Gmail contact list to¬†find those users on Facebook, the giant social network has a button that lets you download your contacts from Google, then upload the file to Facebook, thereby accomplishing pretty much the same thing without Google’s approval. As The Guardian notes, this effectively takes advantage of the web giant’s own data-liberation policies, which make it easy for users to get their information out of Google’s databases. While Facebook recently added a feature that allows users to download their photos, wall posts and other content, it does not make it easy to pull your contacts’ email addresses (according to one of our commenters, however, this is possible if you use a Yahoo Mail import tool).

Now Facebook has used the search company’s own data-liberation policies to avoid the stick that the web giant is waving. Google could change the terms under which users can download their own data, or alter the process in order to make it harder for Facebook to get it, but that would look bad — and risks irritating users. In effect, Google is trapped by its own commitment to openness, and has to allow Facebook to import contacts without providing the same download feature. For now, at least, it seems that the social network’s “roach motel” approach to data will continue.

Update: A Google spokesman provided this statement on Facebook’s latest move:

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.”

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Franco Bouly