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Facebook and Google still not ready to connect friends

During panel at Supernova 2008, representatives of Facebook, Google, and Plaxo get into ongoing controversy over friend-connecting APIs.

The meaning of openness in the realm of social networks continues to be difficult to pin down. At a panel discussion Tuesday at Supernova 2008 in San Francisco, representatives from Facebook, Google, and Plaxo discussed their various interpretations of openness and got into the ongoing controversy between Google and Facebook over their friend-connecting APIs.

Kevin Marks, Joseph Smarr, and Dave Morin prepare to go onstage. Dan Farber

"The point is that the individuals have shared custodianship of it because they have overlapping knowledge of each other's connections," said Kevin Marks of Google regarding who owns the social graph data. Users understand that if they violate the implicit social contract, it will upset fellow users. "The goal of OpenSocial (Google's set of application programming interfaces for allowing applications to access a social graph) is to have an abstraction so the social contract can be enforced by the containers," Marks said.

"Open is when users are mashing up things and in control. It's driven by what is valuable to the user," said Plaxo's Joseph Smarr.

Facebook's Dave Morin defined openness as giving people control over the information they share and providing developers with the capability to build on top of the Facebook platform. Social data breaks down into three categories, Morin said: identity data, social graph data, and feeds and social actions. With 80 million users, Facebook has a responsibility to make sure that users understand what and how they are sharing information, he added.

"You should be able to take your identity wherever you go and keep social graph in sync," Morin said. The notion of "dynamic privacy" is at the core of Facebook's openness efforts. Users set up privacy controls inside Facebook to share more information and to be more open, and have it always in sync, Morin explained.

It's on the point of being able to take your identity across social networks that has put Google and Facebook at odds.

Last month Facebook blocked Google's Friend Connect service, claiming that it violated its terms of service. According to Facebook, Google Friend Connect's violation was redistributing user information from Facebook to other developers without the users' knowledge.

"When Facebook Connect initially launched and Google Friend Connect launched, both implemented different technology. We found Google to be in violation of our terms of service, so we asked to talk about it with them," Morin said. "We are in direct contact with Google representatives to find ways to work together. It's important that on this panel we are talking about this...It's important that we figure out how to make it work together.

Marks asked Morin what Google would need to change in Friend Connect to make it work for Facebook.

Morin answered, "We would like to work together on how to make dynamic privacy happen for everyone, so every privacy setting on our site works on other sites."

Marks was unclear as to what Google was copying from Facebook in its Friend Connect implementation, using OpenID, OAuth and OpenSocial, that would cause a violation in Facebook's terms of service.

Morin said he preferred not to talk about legal matters. "Our representatives are talking so a fight on the panel doesn't need to happen."

It wasn't a fight but Morin's answer that representatives are talking makes it seem that lawyers instead of engineers, who are at the core of the two companies, are running the show.

Smarr chimed in, "We see each other all the time, and we are all in Silicon Valley, so there are overlapping back channels."

"What Facebook is doing (with dynamic privacy) is very laudable--if you choose to share something in one place, it should appear in another. It's just not clear on how this dynamic privacy will work. If Facebook tries to do it by themselves and not with other people, it will be hard to make it really scale," said David Recordon of Six Apart, who has been involved in data portability efforts.

See also: Social Stand-Off: Google And Facebook Not