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November 9, 2010

Google Promotes Data Portability by Adding Restrictions to the Contacts API

Google found a strange way to show to the world that Facebook is a walled garden that traps your data: by blocking Facebook's access to the Google Contacts API. A Google spokesperson said that "users often aren't aware that once they have imported their contacts into sites like Facebook they are effectively trapped. We hope that reciprocity will be an important step towards 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."

Facebook users can still export their Gmail contacts and manually upload the file to Facebook, but Google Contacts API made this much easier. Facebook even found a direct URL that lets you export your contacts, so you don't have to visit Gmail.

Google may have good intentions, but that's a terrible way to treat users. After all, it's their data and it should be their choice to use services like Facebook.

To show that Facebook is not the only target, Google Contacts API includes some new terms of use: "Google supports data portability. By accessing Content through the Contacts Data API or Portable Contacts API for use in your service or application, you are agreeing to enable your users to export their contacts data to other services or applications of their choice in a way that's substantially as fast and easy as exporting such data from Google Contacts, subject to applicable laws."

That's like trying to make the web faster by asking developers that use the Google Analytics tracking code to make their sites as fast as Google Analytics.

Update: Danny Sullivan quotes a Facebook engineer who says that "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".

But that's not always the case, since Facebook allows Yahoo and Microsoft to build services that import your Facebook friends, while Google can't get that data. Danny concludes 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."

Update 2: Google redirects users that want to download their address book directly from Facebook to a page titled "Trap my data now":

"Hold on a second. Are you super sure you want to import your contact information for your friends into a service that won’t let you get it out? Here's the not-so-fine print. You have been directed to this page from a site that doesn't allow you to re-export your data to other services, essentially locking up your contact data about your friends. So once you import your data there, you won't be able to get it out. We think this is an important thing for you to know before you import your data there. Although we strongly disagree with this data protectionism, the choice is yours. Because, after all, you should have control over your data."


  1. Facebook continues to play the same card. Facebook friends are based on names and not email ids. If you decide to move away from Facebook, you do not get the right to take with you email addresses of all your friends on the network.

    Gmail of course is all about emails. You need to have the ability to export email addresses because that is what used to communicate on it.

    But Google is right in saying... if you want open access from us, you need to provide open access to others too.

    Remains to be seen how supportive Facebook would be if and ever Google Me launches.

    Same case for Diaspora.

  2. If you try to link your Google OpenID to your Facebook account, Facebook requires access to your contacts. I don't want Facebook's fingers in my email account, so I've never followed through. Maybe now things are different...

  3. I think this is an excellent step. It really should be two-way. Google isn't preventing anyone from using their data in Facebook. It's a pity the reverse isn't true.

    This also has the virtue of making it clearer that you are handing over to Facebook not only your own personal data, but the personal data of others as well.

  4. But surely it's miles ahead of Facebook on portability, and if you require reciprocity you basically are forcing the other party to liberate it's user data and not leech it unconditionally from everywhere else.

  5. I totally agree with Google on this. I think it's fair to require another company to provide the same services. Unlike the guy above, I don't think it compares to Google Analytics example. I should be able to download a "contact list" of all my facebook friends for use in whatever I want. They're my contacts, not Facebooks.

  6. I really appreciate what Google did for a completely different reason; I don't trust people who know me to be responsible with my contact information. I try to be careful with the information I give out, but my phone number and address have ended up in the hands of people I hardly know. And Facebook, which has a pretty bad track record in terms of user privacy, is the last place I want every bit of information someone knows about me to end up.

  7. But I don't get it.

    If I goto and click "Import now", Yahoo Mail can import all of my Facebook contacts. So how is Facebook walled off? Couldn't Gmail also offer an Import-from-Facebook feature?

  8. I'm amused by this conflict.

    Maybe I'm just a filthy, capitalist pig. On the other hand, I see this as a big-time flame war between two giants who have some of the biggest flame throwers around.

    May the market win - and for my personal preference, please let it be Google (if we have to pick between the two).

  9. It's a game theory problem, similar to the Prisoner's Dilemma. If everybody cooperates, everybody gets the best outcome. But Facebook defected, so the *best* response is to punish Facebook. If Twitter, Hotmail and others did the same (but only to Facebook, the defector), Facebook would be forced to concede, and that would maximize data portability for everyone.

    This is a real world case of a classical problem in rationality and game theory, and Google did the right thing.

  10. @Martin. I'm impressed with the PD tie-in. Now I feel like going back to my business strategy class to learn more.

  11. Take a look around at the competitors in the internet space. Microsoft/Facebook are battling it out against Google/OpenSocial community. Here are a couple examples:
    * Facebook is providing exclusive access to its user data via Bing while Google has been left with only publicly published data from Facebook.
    * Facebook and Microsoft partnered to offer Docs for Facebook.

    One could argue: Closed vs. Open data future - the choice is in everyone's hands.

    However, that's an oversimplification of the relationships where it's lonely place at the top of the valley.

  12. Funny from that Google, who doesn't allow to export data from their website builder (namely Google Sites)

  13. I totally support Google's move here. I should be able to download my contacts and take it to other sites if I want to.

  14. I'm with Google on this one.

    Expecting openness from others while not being open is ridiculous.

    "They belong to Facebook, and can only be exported to the business partners that Facebook agrees with."

    That sums it up the differences between Google and Facebook's philosophies quiet nicely. The data should belong to the person and not Facebook.
    When you're sharing your contact information with a friend on Facebook, you're giving out your email address just like you would if you told it to someone and they added it to their Gmail contacts. Expecting Google to let their users export contacts while not letting your users export them is evil.

  15. Right now, attempting to import Facebook contacts from both Windows Live and the Yahoo!Address Book returns this error page. Is anyone else having the same experience?

  16. What a childish approach on Gogle's part. First, I'm not MOVING data to facebook. I'm copying it - so nothing is getting locked up.

    Google is intentionally vague and misleading, Attempting to confuse the avg facebook user with FUD is nasty & despicable.

    Google doesn't own my data any more tha Facebook and their snarky comments do not advance the situation whatsoever. I don't mind the informaiton they provide, but the attitude and approach helps no one.

  17. Just import your Facebook contacts to Yahoo or Hotmail, then export from there to Google.


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