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Facebook: You've No Right To Export Email Addresses (Unless It's To Yahoo & Microsoft)

The Google-Facebook wars have heated up this past week over the ability for people to swap contacts between the services. In the latest round, a Facebook engineer says people have no right to export the email addresses of their contacts. Unless, of course, you’re exporting to Yahoo and Microsoft.

I’ve been watching the events unfold from a distance, and I plan to follow up more with Google and Facebook in the near future. But the latest blow, this one from Facebook, makes no sense.

No Mass Export For You

Mike Vernal, a Facebook engineer, left a long comment on TechCrunch explaining why Facebook apparently can’t allow you to take the email addresses of your friends over to another service, such as Google. From TechCrunch’s post about the comment:

The most important principle for Facebook is that every person owns and controls her information. Each person owns her friends list, but not her friends’ information. A person has no more right to mass export all of her friends’ private email addresses than she does to mass export all of her friends’ private photo albums.

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.

Unless It’s To Yahoo

So a social network like Facebook shouldn’t be exporting email addresses, just “friend lists.” Then explain this screen to me over at Yahoo:

That pretty much looks like Facebook is offering to export all the email addresses from my friends over into Yahoo. The same email addresses that supposedly, I have no right to mass export.

Unless It’s To Microsoft

Maybe this is just some strange one-off thing for Yahoo, though, right? Some unusual exception to Facebook’s “No, you can’t take emails out of Facebook” rule. Then again, over at Microsoft’s Windows Live, I get this:

Seems to me that this is like a social network (Facebook) offering to mass export my friends’ email addresses, just like a social network (Facebook) said social networks shouldn’t be doing.

What Exactly Is A “Friend List?”

Now you might recall a big Facebook event in early October, where Facebook announced they were “giving you more control” with the ability to export your Facebook information. Here’s the official Facebook blog post about it. The help page tells you that the download will include that “friend list” that Vernal, in his TechCrunch comment, said was appropriate for Facebook to export.

Well, I tried it today. Here’s a sample of what my friends list looks like:

It’s a text file. It is literally a plain-text list of names, and nothing more than that.

Friends Are URLs That Link To The Social Graph

I would argue that this is NOT my friend list. My friend list is actually a list of URLs to these people, to who they really are on Facebook, something more like this:

Otherwise, I could easily end up not knowing exactly who some of these people are, as people do share the same names.

More important, who you are as a friend on Facebook means pointing at your actual identity on Facebook, not just giving a name. It means pointing at a URL, pointing at “who” you are in terms of the “social graph” that Facebook itself has popularized. Disconnect a person from their Facebook URL, and they’re no longer a “friend,” not in the Facebook sense.

In short, this list is useless. It’s a nice PR stunt by Facebook, in line with what feels like was an earlier PR stunt about there supposedly being a Facebook “Open Graph” that anyone was able to tap into.

The Not So Open Graph

You’d think an Open Graph would solve Google’s dispute with Facebook. After all, Google could simply tap into the Facebook Open Graph and pull the information it wants.

Nope. As it turns out, the Open Graph is apparently not that open. Here’s what I covered earlier about Google CEO Eric Schmidt saying about that:

We want our core products to get better because of social information. The best thing that could happen would be if Facebook would open up its network and we just used that information to improve our ads and our search …. Failing that, there are other ways in which we could to get that information, is what we’re working on.

That confused me. I asked Schmidt why Google couldn’t use the Facebook’s Open Graph. His response:

Read the terms of service … trust me, read the terms of service

So I went through the terms, and this seemed to be the barrier:

You will not directly or indirectly transfer any data you receive from us to (or use such data in connection with) any ad network, ad exchange, data broker, or other advertising related toolset, even if a user consents to that transfer or use.

Presumably, Google believes that Facebook would view any use of Open Graph data as being employed in Google’s ad network. Or something — I sure as hell wish Schmidt would have simply explained what the issue really was.

Facebook: Open To Its Friends

Suffice to say, you cannot bring your Facebook contacts into Gmail, as you can with Yahoo and Microsoft. Thus, the issue clearly isn’t that Facebook doesn’t think you have the right to mass export emails. It seems that Facebook simply doesn’t want you to mass export them into Google — not unless, I suppose, it gets a business deal with Google. And if it doesn’t want to do a deal, then those emails don’t get to go. They aren’t yours. They belong to Facebook, and can only be exported to the business partners that Facebook agrees with.

Somewhat related, last month Facebook did a deal with Bing, so that Bing could personalize its search results using Facebook data. Why choose Bing over, say, Google. I mean besides the fact that Microsoft owns part of Facebook and that Facebook and Google have no love lost between them?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that Bing’s more innovative. That since they’re the “underdog,” I guess they’re a better partner to develop this data into whatever personalized search vision Facebook has. That there was nobody better he could think of to work with in search. This out of a universe of exactly two major search players, Bing and Google. To add to this, Facebook asserted that it does want to work with everybody — just, you know, not until it unilaterally decides that Bing has everything right.

Can Google Pay To Be Innovative?

You’re kidding me. Seriously, it’s a farce. Look, I like both Google and Bing. Bing IS doing really innovative stuff. But so is Google. And Google has major metric dog years of search experience. Google’s actually been running social search for over a year, whereas Bing has just been doing it for a month. Actually, less than that. That’s because despite announcing it would be available to everyone last month, Bing still took until this month to actually get it out there.

For Facebook to suggest that Google isn’t somehow as capable as Bing to use its social data would be like Google suggesting that Facebook isn’t as good as MySpace when it comes to social networking. It’s farcical. It’s especially farcical coming from a company whose COO Sheryl Sandberg came from Google, whose CTO Bret Taylor came from Google, where a large number of engineers also came from Google. What, they were lame and innovative at Google until they entered the Facebookplex?

The real answer at to why Facebook won’t export contact to Google or provide Google with its social data is simply: “There’s no friggin’ way we’re working with Google.” Just say that, and at least I’ve got more respect.

And Yes, Google Can Be Closed, Too

By the way, Facebook’s Vernal also poked back about how Google can say things about being open but might not do that when it’s inconvenient. Agreed, wholeheartedly! In fact, I did an entire post about that in the past. Check it out: Google: As Open As It Wants To Be (i.e., When It’s Convenient.

As I said, I’ll be following up with both Google and Facebook on the issue. In the meantime, a simple suggestion. If both sides are going to play the open card, then be open. If you’re not going to be open, then at least be open in saying that.

Postscript: See Google/Facebook Saga Continues: Google Warns Not To “Trap” Your Data for the next chapter in this fight.


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