Google vs. Facebook: Who’s Right & Who’s Wrong?

A week ago, Google made changes to its Terms of Service that effectively blocked Facebook from importing a user’s data from Google without offering reciprocity. Ever since, the two companies have duked it out in public, with public statements, comments on blog posts and even a warning that Facebook would “trap” your data.

We spoke with a few members of the data portability community to see what they had to say about the debate between these two big companies and what it means for the rest of us.

It’s a Game of Strategy

Eve Maler (aka XMLgrrl), host of the User-Managed Access group among other things, started off by reminding us that “Facebook’s end-users are not its customers; they’re the product.” While Google’s relationship to its end-users is much the same, she said, “it has developed a strategic stance on privacy and data portability that accepts and promotes greater user control of the personal data it sees, and this allows Google to capture the high ground in this debate.”

According to the independent advocates at the Data Portability Project, data portability “enables a borderless experience, where people can move easily between network services, reusing data they provide while controlling their privacy and respecting the privacy of others.”

In this case, Google has allowed users to import and export their email contact lists – but Facebook has only allowed import – no export. Google has responded by criticizing Facebook’s lack of data portability.

Forcing Facebook’s Hand

Chris Saad, co-founder of the Data Portability Project and VP of strategy at Echo, agrees with Maler that Google has the upper hand in the debate.

“Facebook has been a one-way beneficiary of Data Portability for far too long,” said Saad. “Google asking for reciprocity from equal peers on the internet is a perfectly reasonable, if not overdue, move.”

Elias Bizannes, executive director of the Data Portability Project was a bit more ambivalent in his approach, framing the entire situation in terms of global trade negotiations. According to Bizannes, nobody is winning at this point.

“This tit-for-tat approach is what governments still practice with trade and people-travel restrictions,” explained Bizannes. “The reality is, Facebook and Google are hurting the global information network.”

When user data can be moved around at a user’s discretion, then for a company to have the best product becomes more important than having the most data.

Both Saad and Maler, however, said that the dispute was moving things in the right direction.

“Battles like the current one,” said Maler, “along with the mutually reinforcing effects of social pressure and media attention, are a key way to ratchet up data control across the board for end-users who aren’t paying customers of these services.”

Saad said that it was unfortunate that Google had to add the clause to their TOS, “but it is clear that there was no other way to force the issue. Many open standards on the Internet – including HTTP, HTML, DNS etc assume/force two way openness, and Google is just trying to re-establish some fair use.”

In the end, Bizannes said that both Google and Facebook would benefit from working together rather than duking it out.

“These companies need to recognize what their true comparative advantage is and what they can do with that data,” explained Bizannes.

What a site really wants is persistent access to a person so they can tap into the more recently updated data, for whatever they need. […] Having a uniform way of transferring data between their information network silo’s ensures privacy-respecting ways that minimize the risk for the consumer (which they claim to be protecting) and the liberalization of the data economy means they can in the long term focus on their comparative advantage with the same data.

What if No One is Right?

Steve Greenberg, lead author of the first Portability Policy and self-described “product manager nonpareil”, pointed out that while Google may appear to hold the moral high-ground, neither company comes out ahead in the end.

There is no “good guy” here.  To me, it looks like Google wanted to pick a fight with Facebook and used data portability as an excuse.  This is a shame because, from a portability standpoint, Google had been among the best in the industry.  I would ask both Google and Facebook to allow people to move their data around freely.

Why do I doubt Google’s sincerity, especially since they’ve been friendly in the past?  Unless they were just looking for a pretense to shut off portability, it’s hard to see what they hope to get out of this.  Everyone who might care already knows that Facebook won’t let you export data.  Why punish your users just to get back at Facebook?

What’s Next?

According to Bizannes, companies can only survive by being competitive and, in this case, that comes in the form of data portability.

Maler, meanwhile, cites the User-Managed Access group she hosts, saying that it “is creating opportunities for users to offer novel ‘personal data products’ in a way that increases their ability to dictate requirements for privacy and data portability.”

Saad reminds us that data portability isn’t just for show and “‘Having an API’ is not openness. Having the right terms of service and an INTEROPERABLE data format and protocol is openness.”

Maybe it’s battles like this, between the Internet giants, that will settle the debate. Perhaps folks like Maler, Bizannes, Saad and Greenberg will finally convince them that openness is in their best interest. Or maybe, one day, the users will demand a way to do what they want with their data.

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