Give Us Our Data, Facebook

I usually give Facebook the benefit of the doubt in its various wars with the press and users, particularly around privacy issues. Mostly because user expectations around privacy are changing in real time. Things that were reprehensible just a couple of years ago are now considered so mainstream that even Salesforce will buy them and no one blinks.

So when Facebook redefines privacy to remove actual privacy, I take a wait and see approach.

I’ve taken the same approach on data portability. For a good two years we’ve all been waiting for Facebook to let our data out. They’ve done so in drips and drabs, but the crown jewels – user emails – remain locked up.

In 2008 Robert Scoble was actually banned from Facebook for using a Plaxo script that extracted friends’ email addresses. That was pretty hard back then and it required both screen scraping as well as optical character recognition, because the emails were displayed in images.

At the time I sided with Facebook. Mostly because screen scraping on a mass scale can destabilize sites, but also because I believed that my email address was my data, not Robert’s, to take. Also, Facebook wasn’t that big back then, sometimes you need to give young startups a break so they have any chance against the big guys.

Well, that’s all changed now. And it’s time for Facebook to voluntarily hand that data over to users, via an API that third party apps can use.

Also, I’m not focusing on Google’s actions, or the very public fight going on between the two companies (summary here) over this very issue, in this post. Whether Google is right or wrong, while interesting, is a different conversation.

These are the reasons I think Facebook has to give users and authorized third party applications the ability to extract social graph information, including email addresses, from Facebook. More on each below.

1. It’s what users want, and it’s the right thing to do.

2. Facebook is so large now that health-of-ecosystem and user needs must be considered when Facebook makes product and policy decisions.

3. They’re lying to press and users, even today, about their motivations for retaining data. This is not about protecting users.

4. The data export tool they released last month is a red herring.

5. They have a very small window of opportunity to do this, before Attorneys General and class action litigators see too big of an opportunity to pass up.

It’s the right thing to do. Facebook is becoming the center of our Internet lives, more so each day. Dissatisfied users really don’t have a choice to leave Facebook any more. Giving up Facebook, for tens of millions of people at least, would be no more palatable than giving up their telephone. That means people can’t really vote with their feet any more. Facebook needs to lay the groundwork now to avoid being the focus of antitrust attention in the next decade, or attorney general/class action lawyers in the next two years. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s also the smart thing to do.

Facebook is too important. So much of the Internet’s architecture has been rewritten in the last year to leverage and exploit Facebook Connect and other Facebook data and tools that the decision is no longer really entirely theirs. There are real health-of-ecosystem issues arising that must be addressed now or the Internet as a whole will suffer. And on a user level, Facebook is already the center of their world. It is their address book, except it’s an address book that won’t let you download your information to use it in other places.

We need a user advocate sitting at the table when Facebook makes product and policy decisions. That way it won’t be about what they can get away with, it will be about what’s best for everyone. In the long run, that will make Facebook a far more valuable company, too. There should be someone at Facebook who’s job it is to piss everyone else off by always taking the user’s side. And when they win or lose battles internally they should be transparent about their position on those battles.

Facebook is lying. Facebook’s statement today boiled down to this: “The most important principle for Facebook is that every person owns and controls her information. Each person owns her friends list, but not her friends’ information. A person has no more right to mass export all of her friends’ private email addresses than she does to mass export all of her friends’ private photo albums.”

That’s the same argument that they used two years ago with Scoble. But since then Facebook has been quite willing to allow “mass exports” of “friends’ private email addresses” if the terms are right. They did it with Microsoft, they’re doing it with Yahoo, and possibly other partners. Facebook violated their own privacy policy with the Microsoft relationship. The policy has since been updated.

The truth is Facebook doesn’t see this data as your friends’ private email addresses. They consider it their data. They own it. Literally. So when they say “A person has no more right to mass export all of her friends’ private email addresses than she does to mass export all of her friends’ private photo albums,” what they really need to do is add “, unless it’s with a partner that’s making it worth our while.”

The data export tool red herring. Last month Facebook started letting users download most of their Facebook data, and many people point to that as a sign they are opening up. Nonsense. All that data is nice, and it’s helpful to be able to download it. But it is not usable by third parties in any automated way, and it doesn’t include friend email addresses. You couldn’t use it to export all your photos to Flickr, for example. That means it’s a nice PR product, but it doesn’t address the core problem at all.

Small window of opportunity. There are companies with unlimited resources putting pressure on politicians with unlimited ambitions to do something about this. If Facebook moves now they get credit for being decent. If they wait, things get ugly for them, with the same result. At this point Facebook has already won this war twice over – being magnanimous won’t hurt them competitively, and it will help their image.