Will Google and Facebook start feuding over data?

By: Ted Kritsonis

February 25, 2011

This week, Google updated its Nexus S Android smartphone and ultimately severed the ties between Facebook contacts and Android’s own Contacts application. The move is just the latest in the increased competition between the two tech giants over sharing data.

The Nexus S is the successor to the Nexus One, the first Android phone designed and marketed purely by Google. Having already been released in the U.S. in December, the Nexus S is being called a “lead” Android phone by Google, and the decision to remove Facebook contacts will now be permanent on all “lead” phones. The problem is, that’s really the only Android phone Google controls, since the fragmentation of the operating system has it installed on several handset manufacturers’ devices. The Nexus S, made for Google by Samsung, is set to be released in Canada in March, according to inside sources.

All of this doesn’t affect how the Facebook mobile app functions on its own on Android. There appear to be no plans to change that, either.

The current row between the two is that Google will no longer integrate Facebook contacts into the regular contact list, though it will still work the same for any Android phone that isn’t a Nexus S — even the Nexus One will work the same way. Google’s contention is that because Facebook contacts can’t be exported from the device, like Google’s contacts can, it “creates a false sense of data portability.”

Back in November, Google turned off data APIs for Gmail on Facebook, which meant that users could no longer import Gmail contacts to Facebook. The move was apparently so stunning to Facebook, that it issued this public letter to complain and question the company’s motives on data portability. Now that Facebook won’t allow any data export, even if it is just Friends lists, Google is pulling the plug as best it can on Android.

Put simply, Google wants a Facebook contacts API like the one it has for Gmail. Facebook doesn’t have one, though it does have private agreements with Microsoft and Yahoo! that allow them to import Facebook contacts into Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail, respectively. Also, Facebook contacts are integrated completely into contacts on Windows Phone 7, except Facebook data can’t be exported from those devices.

The way Google sees this, it makes sense for users to expect that data they import into a service, can also be exported too. Google tried this with something called Friend Connect in 2008, which allowed Facebook Friends lists (along with other social networks) to be exported, but Facebook banned it because it saw it as a violation of its privacy policy. Google didn’t agree, and still doesn’t.

Facebook’s stance at the time was that a list is inherently different from the information in that list. In other words, while having access to all your friends’ visible info for your own eyes is one thing, it’s another if it means exporting things like email addresses, photo albums and postings to another site or service. Facebook was in a different situation because it was a social network and not an email service, though that’s clearly changed now with Facebook’s email and messaging offerings. Despite that, Facebook isn’t budging.

At the core of this is the value of the data Facebook holds. At over half a billion members, the ad opportunities and services that can be targeted at such a large market are likely endless. Google naturally wants access to all that, but doesn’t believe Facebook is being truly open about data portability.

No matter what happens next, these two behemoths will collide again and again over issues like data, privacy and integration, as the spectre of competition continues to grow between them.

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