Facebook Blocks Friend Export to Google Plus

Who owns your data? The latest battle between Facebook, Google, and an application designed to make your contacts more portable raises that question. Facebook is blocking this application, apparently afraid that its members are using it to move their contacts over to Google’s new social service, Google Plus.

The application itself is a Google Chrome extension called Facebook Friend Exporter. Created by Mohamed Mansour, it was released back in November 2010, well before Google+ came out. The application lets users export contact information from Facebook – name, e-mail address, phone number, birthday, and more – and save it as a spreadsheet file. Users can also import the information directly into their Gmail address book, if they so choose.

The exporter only works on the English version of Facebook. It’s become very popular; its home page states that it had more than 22,000 users as of July 5. Unfortunately, the current version, 2.2.2, may be blocked by Facebook.

Mansour offers an update of the situation on the home page: “Facebook is trying so hard to not allow you to export your friends. They started to remove emails of your friends from your profile…it will no longer work for many people.” He noted that he’s currently deploying a new version with a different design, and explained that “You might have to do exports daily. It uses a different approach, and I will maintain this version. Just bear with me.”

So why exactly is Facebook doing this? Let’s put aside the obvious explanation for a moment, and note that the extension does in fact violate Facebook’s terms of service. Section 3.2 from the social network’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities states specifically that “You will not collect users’ content or information, or otherwise access Facebook, using automated means (such as harvesting bots, robots, spiders, or scrapers) without our permission.”

And exactly why would Facebook make such a restriction? Believe it or not, it’s a privacy issue. Yes, the social site boasts (if that’s the right word) a poor record on this score, but it’s a legitimate concern. Also, as Joe Wilcox points out, “Facebook rightly doesn’t want marketers or cybercriminals taking massive amounts of personal data.”

But the fact of the matter remains that Facebook didn’t start blocking the extension until after Google+ started opening its doors. Beta users of Google’s new social service have given it excellent reviews, and started extending invites to their friends. Even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is on Google Plus; in fact, he’s believed to have more friends on that service than anyone else. (It’s the ultimate in irony if he used Mansour’s extension to move his friends’ information into Google Plus, of course).

Some observers have pointed out that the debate isn’t so much about who owns your friends, as Mansour has suggested, but who owns your friends’ information. Facebook apparently hopes to keep a lock on that information. In fact, they would probably argue that it’s their responsibility to do so, since the information was specifically shared in the context of their service.

It’s worth noting, however, that Google has quietly taken a different approach – even when it’s not in their best interest to do so. They’ve unveiled a website called the Data Liberation Front that explains how to get your data out of more than a score of Google products. And Google+ users can take advantage of a feature called Google Takeout, which lets them export their data from all sorts of Google products. Actually, you don’t even need to be a Google+ user to use Google Takeout; I’m not, and I had no problem getting into the service. So if you want to take all of your friends’ contact information from, say, Gmail, and move it to Yahoo Mail, Google Takeout can help you do it.

So who really owns the information? Both sides offer valid arguments. When I give my contact information to someone, I expect them to use it to contact me, and not to spam me with information on products and services in which I have no interest. I’ve had applications offer to extract all of the contact information I have in an email service to move it into the social network – and then offer to spam all of my friends to invite them into the service. I’ve also received automated email (spam) from friends who did this. No thank you.

On the other hand, I have a real problem finding fault with an application that simply takes your own friends’ contact information and organizes it so you can use it somewhere else. Yes, it can presumably be used for nefarious purposes. But I don’t think that’s what Facebook is truly concerned about here. And if I received a personal letter from a friend who’d just joined a new social network and sincerely wanted me to join, too…well, that’s not spam anymore, that’s word-of-mouth advertising. And I can treat it in the same way I’d treat any suggestion I get from a friend.

Facebook, ideally is supposed to be all about building relationships. You’re communicating with friends, sharing pictures and links, and otherwise staying in touch. By blocking this application, the social network is, in some sense, trying to interfere with those relationships. More than that, it’s making a number of people rather angry – quite possibly angry enough to grab their information the hard way and go play somewhere else.

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