In the last week, we’ve seen a host of announcements relating to data portability. MySpace kicked things off by revealing a data partnership with Twitter. Facebook followed with Facebook Connect, and Google got in the act with Google Friend Connect. Essentially, it’s an arms race between these three groups with two objectives: to get the most users to store their data centrally, and to build partnerships with popular sites to incentivize users to store their data with one site over another (basically, “look at all the other cool sites you can export your data to if you pick me”). In the spirit of data portability, one might have expected that the three sites would be ‘open’ (pun intended) to letting their users share data across the competing products. Facebook quickly corrected that little assumption with an announcement yesterday. From the Facebook Developers’ Blog:
“In the past, when we found applications passing user data to another party (for instance, to ad networks for the purpose of targeting), we suspended those applications and worked with those developers to ensure they respect user privacy. Now that Google has launched Friend Connect, we’ve had a chance to evaluate the technology. We’ve found that it redistributes user information from Facebook to other developers without users’ knowledge, which doesn’t respect the privacy standards our users have come to expect and is a violation of our Terms of Service. Just as we’ve been forced to do for other applications that redistribute data in a way users might not expect or understand, we’ve had to suspend Friend Connect’s access to Facebook user information until it comes into compliance.”
The above (innocuously posted under a heading of “Thoughts on Privacy”) represents the first salvo in what is turning into a battle over user data. Apparently sites that are partners in the OpenID initiative can be somewhat open, but not entirely open, leading some to question if these products represent the coming of real data portability. There’s an interesting post by David Recordan at O’Reilly radar on the topic:
So, what’s Facebook’s motivation in doing this, other than drawing a line in the sand for its users and competitors? Why do they feel threatened by Google, which doesn’t have a social network of its own in the traditional sense? Michael Arrington at TechCrunch lays it out nicely:
“[MySpace and Facebook] know that to keep users happy, and to stop them from entering in all that friend data into other sites, they need to make their data at least somewhat portable. Not too portable, mind you. That means they’d lose control. But just portable enough. That’s why they are launching their products…
Google is a little different. They don’t have a social networking presence in the
, so they are trying to get in the middle between the guys with the profiles (like Facebook) and the sites that want the data. Their Friend Connect product does just that, and makes them an important data middle man. That position can later be leveraged intensely. In fact, in many ways Google can become the most important social network without actually having a social network. Facebook, of course, doesn’t want this. And that’s the real reason why they blocked them today (although the rumor is that the two companies are talking tomorrow about some sort of compromise).” U.S.
Who’s right and who’s wrong in this specific instance is debatable. There are those who believe that Google is wrong for creating an app that shares data in such a way and supposedly has “stale” information. And there are those who argue that Facebook has no right to determine what applications can or cannot be utilized by users to share their personal data. Regardless of who ultimately compromises on this round, this type of skirmish is only indicative of the beginnings of a full-blown user data war.