The Facebook Newsfeed: so much juicy information, so little access to it. Last week we wrote about a new Facebook app that turned your newsfeed into an RSS feed you could subscribe to outside of Facebook. It was really useful and now it’s gone.
Even the app’s developer agrees that the app crossed the line, overstepping Facebook’s much celebrated privacy controls. We’re still disappointed though, and we wish that this rich source of data could be opened up for developers and users to build value on top of. What kind of publishing system doesn’t offer an RSS feed? A fundamentally closed one.
There’s something mind boggling about the fact that Facebook opened up user news feeds through the Activity Streams Atom protocol, thus allowing other applications to access and work with all that data, but explicitly prohibits the same information from being served up to users themselves as an RSS feed. So a software developer can access your news feed as a data stream, but you can’t.
The argument is that the News Feed RSS made it too easy to violate privacy conditions put on some users’ Facebook data.
Facebook hasn’t responded yet to our request for an official comment, but Facebook software engineer, Ari Steinberg, explained in an unofficial comment on the Activity Streams discussion group, “We’re certainly not opposed to enabling you to export your own content (in fact, we’re always trying to work on ways to make that easier), but exporting all your friends’ content to a totally public place without their permission isn’t cool.”
But it was really useful. Sometimes privacy is at odds with innovation, and while we would never want to say that privacy is illegitimate – we’re not happy to see it shut down major potential avenues for innovation either.
If the app published an authenticated feed (meaning you had to log in to view it) and if the apps around the web had better support for authenticated feeds, then the story would probably be different. That’s not where we’re at, though; even the very popular Google Reader can’t handle password protected RSS feeds.
App developer, Teck Chia, says privacy issues and copyright violation in the use of the phrase “News Feed” were both cited by Facebook when the app was shut down. Chia understands the privacy concern but hopes to be able to find a solution shortly. One option may be to publish only a user’s own items in a feed, perhaps folding in the updates of friends who have added the app as well and specifically opted-in, and perhaps sending items through the feed that say merely that “Your friend John updated his staus, click here to log in to Facebook and read it.”
We’re not sure how useful those options sound. It’s not surprising but it is a real disappointment that Facebook shut the app down. The wall that keeps Facebook user data in and private by default feels too contrary to the fundamental nature of the internet for it to last. In a poll we performed last week, 40% of our readers said they wanted Facebook to open their data either a little or a lot. We’re sure the percentage of all Facebook users who feel that way would be smaller, but a closed pocket of the web seems to us to be something that will be worn away in time.
There may not be an RSS feed for your Facebook News Feed today, but it sure seems like only a matter of time until there is.