Google, Facebook duke it out over user data

Reciprocity seems to be at the heart of burgeoning war of words between Internet giants

Things are getting a bit heated between two of the largest Internet companies as they spar over users' data.

Google and Facebook, which increasingly seem to be rivals, have been engaged in a war of words this week over data portability. The issue boils down to the ability to move user data back and forth between Web services, such as Google's Gmail and Facebook.

"We're reaching the point where the giants are going to bump up against each other more, [which is] sure to cause some nasty skirmishes," said Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group. "Even though a casual user might not see it, Google and Facebook are definitely rivals at the edges. The big picture is that both companies are looking for the same thing: lots of users who stick around for longer times."

The spat started simmering late last week when Google stepped in to bar Facebook from automatically importing users' Gmail contacts. The move, according to analysts, stemmed from the fact that Facebook lets users import data into the social network but doesn't make it nearly as easy to export data to other sites and services.

Google's response was to change its API so that users can share their information only with companies that reciprocate on a quid pro quo basis.

Facebook responded Monday by giving users a link to a download feature that skirts around Google's roadblock. Users simply say they're downloading the information for their own use and then upload it to Facebook.

Mike Vernal, a member of the Facebook engineering team, explained Facebook's position in a response to an article on TechCrunch.

"Openness doesn't mean being open when it's convenient for you," Vernal wrote. "We strongly hope that Google turns back its API and doesn't come up with yet another excuse to prevent their users from leaving Google products to use ones they like better instead."

And now Google is warning users who are trying to import Gmail data into Facebook that their information could get "trapped."

In a pop-up notice titled "Trap my contacts now," Google issues this warning: "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," Google's warning continues. "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."

Olds noted that there probably won't be a clear winner in this back-and-forth, but it will draw attention to the way Facebook covets users' data.

"Both Facebook and Google espouse openness at every turn, but both also have their blind spots as well," he added. "Facebook has not made sharing a priority. More accurately, Facebook likes sharing when content flows into Facebook, but not so much when it concerns content flowing out of Facebook."

Olds noted that holding on to users and their data is a practice done in every industry, but Facebook may have to eventually bend a bit on this.

"At the end of the day, I think Facebook will have to become more open to allowing users to export their data out," he added. "If they don't, some smart kid somewhere will figure out a way to do it."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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