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Google wields data openness against Facebook

Google's Data Liberation Front is accelerating efforts to differentiate its employer from Facebook by allowing users to take their data elsewhere with one or two clicks.

Google is accelerating efforts to make its new social network look like a more open and attractive alternative to Facebook.

The latest: Google will allow users to export a list of Web sites that they've recommended through the "+1" button.

Brian Fitzpatrick tells reporters on a Google Hangout video chat today that openness makes Google work hard to keep users from leaving.
Brian Fitzpatrick tells reporters on a Google Hangout video chat today that openness makes Google work hard to keep users from leaving.

While only a modest change, it highlights how Google is trying to use openness--the ability to extract your data from its servers with the click of a button--to differentiate itself from its far larger and more established rival.

"When your users can leave you you're going to work as hard as you can to keep them," Google engineering manager Brian Fitzpatrick told reporters during a video conference today using Google Hangout. A service announced last month called Google Takeout makes it easy to move to rival services.

Facebook, on the other hand, has taken a different approach to who owns user data. Last week, it blocked a tool written by developer Mohamed Mansour that allowed users to extract contact information their friends have shared with them.

This week, it blocked another by Open-Xchange, which allowed people to reconstruct their Facebook contact list on Google+.

It's not exactly a new debate: Google tried to ratchet up the pressure on Facebook to be more open last November, although the discussion at the time was about searchability rather than the possible threat of Google+. An early round in the skirmish took place as far back as 2008.

Facebook, of course, is in the enviable position of being enmeshed in the daily lives of hundreds of millions of users. The hassle and inconvenience of reconstructing a social network on a rival's service, coupled with what economists call network effects, is a significant barrier to Google+ becoming as successful.

Facebook does allow users to download much of their data, but not instantly and not in a format that can be easily imported to rival services. It's "not in an open portable format at all," says Fitzpatrick, the Google manager. When asked why it wasn't, he declined to speculate: "I have no explanation."

A spokesman for Facebook did not immediately respond to a CNET request for comment.

Facebook has taken some positive steps in the past, says Steve Repetti of the Data Portability Project, which advocates for ready data availability in a useful format.

"Now what they're doing is they're picking and choosing and removing functionality," Repetti says. "'We did it. But now we're undoing it because we don't want to benefit Google.'"

Mansour's now-blocked Chrome extension allowed users to copy the information your Facebook contacts have shared with you--name, e-mail address, phone number, birthday, Web site, address--then letting you save it as a spreadsheet file or import it directly into your Gmail address book.

It arguably ran afoul of Facebook's terms of service, which says: "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."

Repetti of the Data Portability Project says: "There has to be an element of accountability. If you say you're going to be open, be open. Even if you say you're not open, at least I know that going in."

Update 4:10 p.m. PT: Google has published a blog post with a video (an 8" floppy disc makes a cameo).

Disclosure: McCullagh is married to a Google employee not involved with Google+.