Last week, Google asked Facebook to get their hands off the data stored in their service. Google felt that Facebook is taking data in programmatically from other services while not reciprocating in the same way. Google should have made this move 2-3 years back but it is better late than never.
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.
Basically, Google modified the terms for using their API to enforce this decision. It shuts down any service that sucks the data away from Google without offering a programatic way to take data out of their own service. According to AllFacebook.com, Facebook is still letting their users take data out of Google programmatically.
As of today Facebook is still running their contact importer despite the new move by Google and we’re not quite sure how long that will continue to run. My guess is that Google will have to manually block Facebook if they want them to stop importing contacts. Interestingly enough Google is supposed to unleash their “Facebook killer” in the near future, which makes this terms change interesting timing. While Facebook does enable users to download their Facebook data, they don’t have a tool for exporting contact information.
It will be interesting to see how Google reacts to this.
My thoughts on Facebook’s behavior
Before I talk about the data wars and what we can do about it, I would like to offer my thoughts on Facebook’s behavior with the user data
- First and foremost, Facebook is acting silly and greedy
- In 2007, I wrote a post warning users to wake up before it is too late. Even though there was some pressure from analysts, evangelists and pundits to open up, Facebook didn’t face much pressure from the market (either from the competing companies in the space or in the form of demand by their users). I still stand by the arguments in the post and argue that users should take it upon themselves to pressure Facebook to open up
- After the Scoble Fiasco, I wrote a post about the data ownership issue. I think Facebook realized ownership part of the issue now and is letting users download their own data.
Now, some more thoughts
What we are seeing is not the beginning of an end to the data portability fights but it is just the beginning of larger data wars to be fought between users, providers and, may be, even governments. So folks, buckle yourself up and get ready for the crusades data wars. Data ownership and the ability to export data out of a service are just one part of the problem. It is the problem which the end-users have with the service providers. As the awareness about the ownership of data among the users increased, Web 2.0, Social Networks and SaaS providers slowly started allowing users to download their data in the open formats. Even though Facebook was slow to the game, they finally relented (partly due to people like David Recordon working from inside) and allowed their users to download all data. Slowly, we are seeing some closure to the war between users and service providers on data ownership issue even though we still need to solve the ownership issues associated with meta data, etc.. Well, that’s another fight for another day.
The other part of the war doesn’t directly involve the users but it is fought by service providers on top of users’ data. One of the biggest reasons for the success of Web 2.0, Social Networks and, even, SaaS is the ease with which users can transfer data from one provider to another programmatically. During early stages when service providers were not sure about the kind of success they will see with their services, they were playing nice with other providers. Probably, they failed to see the value of holding on to the data. Some services like Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. saw the value in keeping the data inside a walled garden and successfully held on to it even while sucking out data from other providers unabashedly. In short, companies like Facebook didn’t play nice like other players in the space. Only now, players like Google are waking up to this fact.
Google’s attempt to stop Facebook is definitely too late to make any dent on Facebook’s business but it will, at least, deter newer startups from following the footsteps of Facebook. As we aggregate more and more data and store on such social networks and other cloud providers, we are going to see more such wars between companies trying to get the data from one another. It is going to get messy before it gets better.
While these companies wage their wars, we can do something to keep the web open. At the minimum, users should do the following
- Make sure that the ownership of data is with the you, the user. Read the damn TOS
- Add pressure on the service providers to open up the data for programmatic access from other services
We can’t avoid the looming data wars but by being careful about the data, we can play a role in eventually ensuring a more open and interoperable web. While the data wars are fought both in the market and in the courts, users can do their part to not just ensure that they own their data but also to keep web open. As more and more users start using social networks and cloud based services, there is a strong need to educate the users about their rights and what is right for the future of the web.