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Facebook blocks contact-exporting tool

The social network has hobbled a Chrome extension that could move friends' contact information to Google+, but the programmer is working on a way around the restriction.

Mohamed Mansour's Facebook friend export tool
Mohamed Mansour's Facebook friend export tool
Mohamed Mansour

Facebook has been blocking a tool intended to let people extract contact information their friends have shared with them, the tool's developer said today--but he's working on a way to evade Facebook's restrictions.

"Facebook is trying so hard to not allow you to export your friends. They started to remove e-mails of your friends from your profile by today July 5th 2011. It will no longer work for many people," warned Mohamed Mansour, developer of the Facebook Friend Exporter, a Chrome extension that automates the data extraction process.

The tool lets people save their contacts' e-mail addresses, birthdays, phone numbers, and other information into a text file or to directly import them into Gmail. That makes it much easier for Google account holders to rebuild their contact network at Google+, Google's brand-new social network site.

The activity surrounding the export tool spotlights the value of the data contained in social networks. Google believes people should be able to extract information about their contacts and provides tools to let people do so. Facebook, the incumbent power in social networking, provides only a tool to let people extract what they themselves have put into the network. The friend list it provides is a series of names in plain text--no contact information, and not even a link to their Facebook pages to help distinguish John Smith No. 1 from John Smith No. 2.

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Facebook's actions to block the extension apparently were effective. Many users of the Facebook Friend Exporter tool reported that it didn't work, producing only names and the address of their Facebook pages, but not the e-mail address. In addition, Facebook earlier had begun showing addresses as graphics, not text that was easily detected, processed, and copied; Mansour got around this obstacle by extracting the information through the mobile version of Facebook's site.

In a comment on his Google+ page, Mansour had this to say:

This is what happens when your extension becomes famous :sigh: Facebook just removed the emails from their mobile site. They implemented a throttling mechanism that if you visit your ~5 friends in a short period of time, it will remove the email field.

No worries, a new version is on the making ... I am bloody annoyed now, because this proves Facebook owns every users data on Facebook. You don't own anything! If I were you, I would riot this to the media outlets again.

Seriously ... more motivation to figure out a different approach.

It's become a cat-and-mouse game. Mansour is working to sidestep Facebook's obstacles.

"New version with a different design is currently deploying," Mansour said. "You might have to do exports daily. It uses a different approach, and I will maintain this version. Just bear with me."

Mansour said that for now, he reverted his tool back to an earlier method involving iFrames.

Facebook didn't respond to request for comment yesterday and didn't immediately respond today.

The tool, though, doesn't look like a good fit with Section 3.2 of Facebook's terms of service, which state, "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."

End runs around Facebook
Mansour isn't the only one working on a way to let people extract this data.

Rafael Laguna, chief executive of e-mail and collaboration software maker Open-Xchange, said in a Google+ post today that his company is working on a similar tool.

"If it works we will release it on our test server immediately," Laguna said. The work is part of the company's SocialOX project that, among other things, is designed to give people centralized control over personal information stored at sites such as Facebook, Xing, and LinkedIn.

Laguna acknowledges that it might be difficult, but believes the fact that the software is installed in many places will hamper blocking efforts.

"Using the FB API's don't get you the email address of your Friends, just name and picture which doesn't really get you far. So we have to "scrape" the email address from the profile page of the mobile app, like Mohamed does. Facebook may block the server but everybody can download their own Open-Xchange server and install it someplace else, this will be hard to impossible to block.

In theory they can [block data availability by detecting behavior indicating an effort to copy it]. If you extend the cat-and-mouse hunt to hundreds of machines on hundreds of different lines it is very hard to track due to timing differences. Of course browsing through all friends is an unusual behavior, so you can block after a certain number of profile page views of one user. Or they can simply hide the email address behind a Captcha [the text-recognition tests used to screen out computers].

Facebook's stance has triggered something of a backlash among those who don't like to see data that's been shared to them be locked up.

The open-source Diaspora project is billed as "the social network that puts you in control of your information."
The open-source Diaspora project is billed as "the social network that puts you in control of your information." screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

A Quit Facebook Day drew a commitment, at least an ostensible one, from tens of thousands of people to dump their accounts.

And an open-source project called Diaspora has been working on social-networking software that runs on a distributed network of servers that could perhaps eventually become part of the federated social Web.. (A Diaspora feature, aspects, sounds awfully similar to Google+ circles: "personal lists that let you group people according to the roles they play in your life [and] a simple, straightforward, lightweight way to make it really clear who is receiving your posts and who you are receiving posts from.") Diaspora is in alpha testing now, with the first invitations sent last November.

Such initiatives, though, have shown no signs of denting Facebook's dominance.

Google is another matter. It's already got millions of Gmail users and several other online services people sign up for--Google Docs, YouTube, Picasa Web Albums, for example. It's got a strong brand name and lots of spare money to fund its ambitions. It's got a mature advertising technology to make money from it. And it's got plenty of experienced programmers and a massive global network of data centers to operate at large scale.

What Google doesn't have is people using its services the way they use Facebook--a digital version of the minutae of life's interactions woven into hundreds of millions of people's daily lives. The hassle of rebuilding a person's social connections at Google+ is a major barrier to Google achieving that success.

No wonder Facebook is leery of letting this data out of its hands.

Updated 4:37 a.m. PT and 5 a.m. PT with information on Open-Xchange, background, and Mansour's updated approach. Via Emil Protalinski at ZDNet.