Your Online Data Might Not Belong to You

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Karen Bleier / AFP-Getty Images

Since the beginning of the internet era it has been pretty widely accepted that when you join an online service, whatever data you put into it belongs to you.

That means you can sign up for one kind of e-mail, import your contacts into that system, add a bunch more, and if you later decide to switch to some other e-mail service, you can export all your contacts from the first service into the new one. You can use Microsoft’s Hotmail, then move to Yahoo Mail, then to Google’s Gmail. Or you can have accounts on three services and keep all your contacts in each one.

This is not great for the e-mail services, but it’s fantastic for members because it means that to hang on to you, a service needs to continue improving and keep up with the others. If it falls behind, members will pack their stuff and move elsewhere.

That’s the way things were—until Facebook came along. Facebook took a different approach. Until recently, everything you put into Facebook—photos, messages, wall posts, your profile info, and, most significant, your address book—could not be exported anywhere. In effect, you didn’t own your data. Facebook did.

In October it relaxed things a bit with a policy that lets you export most of your stuff, with one glaring exception: the e-mail addresses of the people on your contact list. All you get is a list of names. Facebook says it can’t let you take your friends’ e-mail addresses because that information doesn’t belong to you; it belongs to your friends.

Of course this is rubbish. The reality is that Facebook wants to make it difficult, if not impossible, for you to leave.

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Now that policy has sparked a fight between Google and Facebook. Google is steamed because its users can, and often do, export their Gmail contact information into Facebook. But those people can’t bring Facebook info back into Gmail.

Earlier this month Google declared it would block exports of its data to services that don’t reciprocate—meaning guess who. In a brazen countermove, Facebook hacked around Google’s roadblock so its users could keep pulling data from Google.

Google said it was “disappointed” with Facebook’s behavior. It also created a warning screen to tell Gmail users that if they export their information to Facebook they won’t get it back.

Both companies declined to comment on the record for this story. But what’s really going on is that they’re at war. Google views Facebook as a threat to its business and has been trying to launch a social-networking service to compete with it. Facebook has rounded up 500 million people and intends to generate billions of dollars in revenue by gathering data about them and selling it to advertisers.

Facebook’s position with rival tech companies boils down to this: if you want access to all the information we’ve collected, strike a deal with us. Microsoft and Yahoo have done that, and now, like magic, they can export Facebook contact info into their systems, while Google still can’t.

Remember the early days of the Net, when everything was going to be open and free, and we were all going to share information in a techno-utopia? That was great until people realized that their user data could be turned into gold. Now there are billions at stake, and nobody is playing nice anymore.

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