This is bogus. For one thing, how did Facebook arrive at its convenient distinction between who owns e-mail addresses in an e-mail program and who owns those addresses in a social network? It's the same information on either platform. If Facebook believes I have the right to export Tom's, Dick's, and Harry's e-mail addresses from Gmail, why is it skittish about my exporting those same addresses out of Facebook?
But Facebook's hypocrisy goes deeper. As Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan points out, Facebook has made what seems like a special exception for Yahoo Mail and Hotmail—Facebook lets users of those two sites pull e-mail addresses from Facebook and into those e-mail programs. In other words, Facebook will let you export your friends' e-mail addresses, so long as you're not exporting them to Gmail.
Sullivan points out another deception, too. In his statement to TechCrunch, Vernal argues that Facebook offers its users portability because it allows them to "export friends lists." He's right: In October, Facebook added a feature that lets people download much of their data from the site. This was a salutary move—it's nice to be able to keep a local copy of all your posts, pictures, and other Facebook stuff in case you ever want to delete it from the Web. But this feature is not a substitute for data portability. The file that you download from Facebook contains just a single plain-text list of your friends on the site—there are no e-mail addresses and no links to their Facebook profiles. This makes the data useless for reconstituting your social network somewhere else—if some other, better social network comes along in the future and you'd like to set up shop there, Facebook won't let you take your friends with you.
Facebook understandably doesn't want to make it easy for its users to leave en masse for the next Friendster or MySpace. Nevertheless, there's a legitimate business reason for the site to change its data-hording ways. Brian Fitzpatrick, * the Google engineer who started the Data Liberation Front, told me earlier this year that one of the reasons to let people export their data is to force Google engineers to innovate. "What keeps people using Google search?" Fitzpatrick asks. "We can't lock them in. The only thing we can do is put a ton of engineering resources into it to keep up search quality." The easier it is for your customers to leave, the more you've got to do to keep them around.
Sure, Facebook has an interest in locking people in now. But that's a short-term interest; over the long run, a huge captive audience breeds complacency. Facebook has more than 500 million active users, and soon it will have 600 million, then 700 million, then even more. Soon, it will have enough users that Zuckerberg and company will come to think of themselves as essentially unbeatable—and they'll get lazy. And that's when, out of nowhere, someone will come along and eat Facebook's lunch. Hoarding our information won't make that reality any less likely. It will just make the stampede away from Facebook a little more annoying.
Correction, Nov. 11, 2010: This article originally misidentified a Google engineer. He is Brian Fitzpatrick, not Brad Fitzpatrick. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
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