The Very Curious Microsoft-Facebook User Data Relationship

Facebook’s ties to Microsoft go back to 2006 when they first signed an advertising deal. A year later they took a $240 million investment, and the advertising relationship was extended this year.

Those ties may explain why Facebook was willing to ignore its own privacy policy in March 2008 and give Microsoft access to Facebook user emails. Despite shutting down Plaxo and Google products that tried to access Facebook users over privacy concerns, they were ok with sending and displaying emails to Microsoft to let users invite Facebook friends to Windows Live Messenger.

Facebook’s privacy policy says “We do not provide contact information to third party marketers without your permission. We share your information with third parties only in limited circumstances where we believe such sharing is 1) reasonably necessary to offer the service, 2) legally required or, 3) permitted by you.”

But Microsoft’s Invite2Messenger appears to violate that policy. Messenger users are asked to log in to Facebook, and then the names and email addresses of all that user’s Facebook friends are then sent to Microsoft and displayed in clear text on a page they control (Facebook itself only shows friend’s emails as images to prevent scraping). You check off which friends you want to invite to use Messenger, and then Microsoft sends each of them an email to install the client and become friends with you. Screenshots of the process (with emails removed) are below.

When Microsoft announced Invite2Messenger they said that LinkedIn, Bebo, Hi5 and Tagged would participate, but none of those partners ever went live. Just Facebook. Another oddity – on a UK MSN site, Microsoft even noted that Robert Scoble was banned for doing exactly what Microsoft is now doing with Facebook’s apparent blessing.

As far as I can tell, Facebook has never allowed this with any other partner. And as I wrote above, they’ve shut down both Plaxo and Google for similar actions.

Why does Microsoft want these social connections imported into Messenger? Does it have anything to do with Microsoft’s surprise launch yesterday of the new social network, which pre-populates friends based on Messenger connections? From people we’ve talked to, the launch came as a complete surprise to everyone, including Facebook.

For months Microsoft has urged users to effectively import their Facebook social graph into Messenger, with Facebook’s consent, even though it appears to clearly violate the Facebook Privacy Policy. Then Microsoft launches a surprise social network based on Messenger contacts.

There’s a lot more to this story as well. Why did Facebook allow this in the first place (in other words, what did they get out of it)? We’ll update soon.