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Why you're a pawn in Facebook vs. Google

Two big important Internet companies are arguing over who is a better online citizen. If only their actions lived up to their words.

Google would like Gmail users to think twice and say this is not all right.
Google would like Gmail users to think twice and say this is not all right.
Screenshot by Tom Krazit/CNET

It should make us nervous when two of America's most important Web companies resort to sniping through the media over which service really has our best interests at heart.

If you enjoy a good catfight in your tech news arena but can't be bothered to figure out what the hell Larry Ellison and Ray Lane are talking about, we present Google vs. Facebook: No, I'm More Trustworthy. Long headed for a collision, Google and Facebook are currently exchanging blows over which company is a better steward of personal information stored on the Web.

This dispute has been simmering for years, but it boiled over last week when Google made a change to a key part of the terms of service, the part governing how Web services that allow their users to import Gmail contacts must treat that data. In short, Google said that anybody who wanted to automatically import Gmail contacts data had to allow the user to export that data just as easily.

Google didn't even really try to hide that Facebook was the clear target of this change. In response, Facebook changed the way Facebook users could import Gmail contacts data by writing a script that allowed those users to automagically download their Gmail contacts as a CSV (comma-separated value) file, and then upload that file into Facebook with the press of another button.

Google then expressed its "disappointment," as if Facebook were an old friend who had made poor choices in life. A Facebook engineer then slammed Google in the comments thread of a Techcrunch post for its previous willingness to block contact export in Orkut (unless you live in Brazil or India you probably never uploaded data to Orkut in the first place, but that's another story) and saying that Facebook has always protected the ability of its users to "own and control" the data stored on the site.

And today, Google added the digital equivalent of a cigarette-pack warning to the Gmail export contacts page, asking Gmail users "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?"

Hypocritical mass
This would all be merely amusing if not for the blatant hypocrisy of both companies when it comes to data issues.

Facebook's argument has been that because the essence of its service is a network of connections to friends and other contacts, each account is effectively an individual node controlled by the person who operates it. To put this a different way, you do not have power over your friends list: If someone "de-friends" you from his or her Facebook contacts list, for example, you no longer have access to the contents of that person's profile that are not otherwise public, and he or she is sliced out of your "social graph."

Google won't let Facebook directly import contacts from Google, so Facebook figured out a way around the restriction.
Google won't let Facebook directly import contacts from Google, so Facebook figured out a way around the restriction (click for larger image). Screenshot by Tom Krazit/CNET

Consequently, when it has come to contact exportation--first exposed by a goofy fiasco three years ago involving a Plaxo contact-importation script tested out by industry blogger Robert Scoble--Facebook has said that it doesn't support contact exportation because your friends' contact information belongs to them, not you.

As it turns out, however, Facebook is merely choosy about where you can take a mass export of your Facebook contacts. Search Engine Land pointed out that Facebook has inked contact-importation deals with Yahoo as well as Microsoft, which is a major investor in Facebook.

Google has a very valid point that the world would be a better place if personal data could move freely into and out of services. But Google also recognizes that data stored within closed social systems has value, as it did back in 2009 when it prohibited Orkut users from exporting their contacts data to other systems using pretty much the same rationale that Facebook has employed in the current dispute. Google has since changed that policy, but only after being called on the carpet about the discrepancy.

When it launched Google Buzz, Google also quite wrongly assumed that your Gmail contacts were also your "friends" in a social-networking context. That meant for a brief period when Buzz first launched, some people who started using Buzz were horrified to learn that the names of their Gmail contacts were now listed on a public Google Profile page by default, allowing a wide swath of your contacts to see who else you frequently consorted with through Gmail. Again, Google fixed these issues, but only after an outcry.

So for all the rhetoric from both companies about protecting your online privacy and right to control your data, each is quite willing to ignore those principles when it suits their business needs.

Facebook would not have turned into a golden database of human behavior and consumer intent without the knowledge of its users that their updates, personal information, and preferences would only be shared among friends (and multinational corporations with API access and slick fan pages). But it also knows it can provide its users with more options and more convenience if it allows MSN and Yahoo users to feed status updates and play Farmville from outside of Facebook's walls, so it cut some deals.

Google preaches openness and user freedom at seemingly every turn, and for the most part does a pretty good job living up to those ideals in providing an information service that has changed the world. But it is also relentless in its pursuit of any and all kinds of data, and time and time again has shown that it doesn't understand how to marry its technical prowess with social cues in order to get in on the social market that Facebook is poised to corner.

Self-interest and your interests
As we pointed out yesterday, this is merely a dispute over who gets to control Facebook data. And you, the user, are not really a party to this dispute.

Facebook wants to dictate how your data can be used because it wants advertisers to overpay for access to that data. Google wants that data to be more open because there's no one better in the world at finding, indexing, and presenting open data than Google, and if a significant source of information is unavailable to Google, it becomes less important.

In other words, it's a dispute over access to you, as opposed to a dispute over who has your back on the Internet.

If you really want to control your data, don't put it on the Internet. If you really value convenient online access to your data, read the terms of service before you hit the upload button to make sure you actually agree with those terms.

And if you're a business student looking for career advice, consider Web-based targeted marketing, be it social, search, or display. It will probably take the government at least five or so years to figure out what's really going on; that's plenty of time to make a score.