Facebook suspends participation in Google's Friend Connect

Citing a terms-of-service violation and concerns about user privacy, social network opts to pull out of the data portability project until further developments are in place.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
3 min read

This post was updated at 3:17 PM with comment from Google's David Glazer.

A post Thursday on Facebook's developer blog explains that the social network has suspended participation in Google's "Friend Connect" project, citing a violation of its internal terms of service.

"Now that Google has launched Friend Connect, we've had a chance to evaluate the technology," the post by Facebook employee Charlie Cheever read. "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."

In other words, while Facebook users would manually opt in to Friend Connect, they would not have control over the third-party sites that would then use Friend Connect through Google's API. "Our terms of service, for privacy reasons, have always forbidden redistribution of other Facebook information that an application takes," Facebook chief privacy officer Chris Kelly said in an interview with CNET News.com Thursday. For example, "where applications have tried to use Facebook data and pass it to third-party ad targeting networks to target their ads, we've shut down those applications."

According to Kelly, the social network never actually had a formal partnership with Google in Friend Connect, which allows owners of Web sites to add social features using the existing APIs from sites like Hi5, Plaxo, and Facebook. "There wasn't participation to start with. That was sort of a mis-impression that may have been formed by their release," he said. "We weren't briefed on how the Friend Connect product was going to work."

David Glazer, director of engineering at Google, told CNET News.com that Google was "disappointed" with Facebook's decision. "(It's) a very simple issue. We think that users should be in control of their data," Glazer said. "We think that Friend Connect at all steps puts users in control of their own data, at every step of the way, and we're disappointed that Facebook disabled their users' ability to use Friend Connect with their Facebook friends. It's that simple."

Facebook got into a privacy snafu of its own when it launched an advertising program, called "Beacon," that sent users' third-party activity on partnering retail and social-media sites to their Facebook profiles. The Facebook user base as a whole didn't seem to care much, but a few vocal privacy advocates said that there weren't adequate controls in place. Facebook eventually modified the application after a series of PR skirmishes that the company likely doesn't want to repeat.

Last week, Facebook announced that it would be extending its API to make data portable to external sites through Facebook Connect. According to Google's David Glazer, the concept sounds promising but Facebook hasn't said much about the technicalities yet. "I'd like to see it when they launch it," Glazer said. "We have not seen any information about Facebook Connect other than a press release. We like the intent stated in the press release, we think it's the same intent they've stated all along. We liked it earlier and we still like it."

As for the overall industry response to Google's Friend Connect, Glazer said, "I've been thrilled with the reception."

Representatives from Facebook told CNET News.com that the specific sections of the terms of service in question are the ones in which Facebook stipulates that developers using Facebook's API "may not store any Facebook Properties in any Data Repository which enables any third party (other than the Applicable Facebook User for such Facebook Properties) to access or share the Facebook Properties without our prior written consent" and "may not sell, resell, lease, redistribute, license, sublicense or transfer all or any portion of the Facebook Properties, or use or store any Facebook Properties for any purpose other than as specifically authorized herein."