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In Data Portability Deathmatch, Users Lose Out

In the last few weeks, Facebook and Google have been engaging in a public tussle over an issue that is near and dear to EFF’s heart: data portability. The crux of the issue is that when you sign up for Facebook, you can find your Gmail contacts or invite them to join the social networking service with a few quick clicks. But when you sign up for Google, Facebook prevents you from easily inviting all of your Facebook friends to Google, despite the fact that Facebook makes it easy for users to export their contacts to other services like Yahoo!.

Earlier this month, Google altered its terms of use for API users in an attempt to push Facebook into making contacts more portable. Basically, if services (such as Facebook) aren’t willing to make contact data portable to Google, then Google will stop making Gmail contacts exportable to their sites. Somewhat ironically, Google is promoting data portability by restricting data portability.

This comes at a time when Facebook is launching a messaging product that may rival Google’s communication applications and rumors abound that Google is looking to make a foray into the realm of social networking — suggesting that market advantage, rather than user rights, could well be driving this data portability squabble.

Google’s maneuver is particularly interesting in light of Facebook v. Power Ventures, a case in which Facebook has sued a company that offers a tool for users to access and aggregate their personal information across social networking sites. Because Facebook’s terms of service don’t allow users to access their information through “automated means,” Facebook claims that Power’s access is not authorized or permitted, and therefore violates state and federal computer crime laws. (The court recently threw out one of these claims, finding that Power could not have violated California’s computer crime law merely by breaching Facebook’s terms of service — a result EFF urged the court to reach in two amicus briefs.)

So Google put Facebook in a bind. Facebook could:

  1. Let users take their Facebook contacts to Google,
  2. Stop importing contacts from Google, or
  3. Continue its current practice and violate Google’s terms of service — which Facebook itself has argued is criminal behavior.

Rather than taking this opportunity to give Facebook users the ability to export their contacts — something that EFF has strongly advocated for in the past — Facebook instead created a tool to work around Google’s restriction. Users signing up for Facebook are now prompted to download their Gmail contacts to their hard drives, and then upload them to Facebook. While this means an extra step for users, the end result is simply that Google contact data is still portable to Facebook, and Facebook doesn’t reciprocate. Google, in its latest salvo of the battle, is highlighting Facebook’s approach in a new message that asks users seeking to export their Gmail contacts to Facebook whether they’re sure they want to take their contacts to a service that refuses to let them export.

So why does exporting data matter to users?

Data portability is a deceptively simple idea with serious benefits for users. EFF championed data portability in our Social Network Bill of Rights. If an online service disrespects user privacy, lacks functionality or violates user expectations, a user should have the right to pack up her information easily and leave. This means that online platforms would have a vested interest in making sure users were happy with their services — or face an exodus.

Facebook has been working to improve its data portability. In October, Facebook announced that it would provide a way for users to export their content, which fits squarely into the Social Network Users’ Right to Leave. (That is, assuming you can figure out how to close your Facebook account.) But Facebook still doesn’t allow users to export the contact information of friends to any service they like.

However, that might be the most important thing.

Social networks like Facebook are more than just status updates, photos and links. They are built on relationships with people. So if you really want to abandon your social networking account and start homesteading a virtual farm on a different online platform, you’ll want to bring the contact data of your digital acquaintances with you. Facebook’s failure to freely provide this functionality makes it more difficult to leave Facebook for one of Facebook’s many social networking rivals.

Facebook, for its part, argues that users don’t have the right to easily download their friends’ contact data anymore than they have the right to mass download their friends’ photo albums. This is a somewhat dubious argument, considering Facebook does allow contact data to be exported to the iPhone address book, Yahoo! and Hotmail. While user privacy is important, hamstringing data portability isn’t the right solution. (And in fact, a savvy user can export Facebook contacts if he or she tries. Here’s how.) If Facebook wants to respect user privacy and choice, it should provide a simple way for users to download data — including the contact data of friends — while also providing an opt-out for individuals who never want their data downloaded by online acquaintances.

One thing should be clear to users of both Google and Facebook: when companies guard data to obtain a market advantage, consumers lose out.

This article was originally published by Rainey Reitman and Marcia Hofmann on Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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