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Who Is Facebook Trying to Protect?

By Jason Z. Cohen TechNewsWorld ECT News Network
May 16, 2008 1:32 PM PT

Google and Facebook have been at each other's throats in recent days over Friend Connect, Google's platform for mirroring your social networking data around the Web.

Who Is Facebook Trying to Protect?

Apparently, Facebook doesn't like the fact that Friend Connect does exactly what it's designed to do.

Protecting Privacy?

This from a blog post by Facebook's Charlie Cheever announcing the blocking move:

"In the past, when we found applications passing user data to another party (for instance, to ad networks for the purpose of targeting), we suspended those applications and worked with those developers to ensure they respect user privacy. Now that Google has launched Friend Connect, we've had a chance to evaluate the technology. We've found that it redistributes user information from Facebook to other developers without users' knowledge, which doesn't respect the privacy standards our users have come to expect and is a violation of our Terms of Service."

That statement looks like it's written to make you think Google is selling your Facebook information to ad networks for the purpose of targeting.

"We're excited that our industry partners are taking greater steps toward openness and enabling users to share their information around the web. We hope, though, that we can collectively find a model that allows users to share data while protecting the privacy of our users' data and ensuring that the user is always in control," Cheever writes.

Not Buying It

Now, that sure sounds as if Facebook has gotten religion on user privacy, but the skeptic in me wants to agree with the pundits out there who say it's Facebook exerting control over your data in order to protect its own interests, not yours.

Here's what Google had to say through spokesperson Sara Jew-Lim:

"Users choose what social networks to link their Friend Connect account to. (They can just as easily unlink it.) We never handle passwords from other sites, we never store social graph data from other sites, and we never pass users' social network IDs to Friend Connected sites or applications.

For example, here's what an application running on a Friend Connected site can access about a user, Joe, who has linked in his hi5 account:

7547238438 joe [picture] 9438265867 8348357012

Translation: Not much. A third party app has access to:

- Your Google Friend Connect ID. This is a number. It is not a name, and it is not your hi5 ID.

- Your friendly name that you entered into Friend Connect (or from hi5 if you didn't).

- Your photo. And only if you've chosen to make that photo public on hi5.

- The Google Friend Connect IDs of any of your hi5 friends who are also members of this site. (NOT all of your hi5 friends. Not their hi5 IDs.)"

OK, so where's the information that's being passed along without permission?

Robert Scoble, who famously got himself kicked off Facebook for trying to port his profile data to another site, actually sides with Facebook on this one.

However, his reasoning appears to be flawed. He cites the example of being able to remove your e-mail address from other places on the Web where it ends up thanks to Friend Connect. Problem is, Friend Connect doesn't distribute your e-mail address.

The Off Switch

The main sticking point appears to be how you turn it off. Say you don't want to be a member of Ingrid Michaelson's site -- which Google has been using as a proof of concept -- through Friend Connect anymore.

You can't flip a switch on your Facebook account and shut off the flow. Of course not, since you turned on the flow via Google in the first place. You can, however, turn it off via the "unlink" feature in the Friend Connect control panel.

That seems petty to me, and bolsters the case that Facebook is holding out for a little more control than it deserves. Frankly, if I want to turn it off, I'll probably go back to the same place where I turned it on. It might be nice to have a place on Facebook to perform the same function, but I don't think it's worth taking your ball and going home.

Couldn't Google and Facebook work together on this to put the functionality in both places? Sure, that'd be good for the users. But when's the last time you saw a tech company do anything because it's good for the users?

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