Facebook: You’ve No Right To Export Email Addresses (Unless It’s To Yahoo & Microsoft)

The Google-Facebook wars have heated up this past week over the ability for people to swap contacts between the services. In the latest round, a Facebook engineer says people have no right to export the email addresses of their contacts. Unless, of course, you’re exporting to Yahoo and Microsoft.

I’ve been watching the events unfold from a distance, and I plan to follow up more with Google and Facebook in the near future. But the latest blow, this one from Facebook, makes no sense.

No Mass Export For You

Mike Vernal, a Facebook engineer, left a long comment on TechCrunch explaining why Facebook apparently can’t allow you to take the email addresses of your friends over to another service, such as Google. From TechCrunch’s post about the comment:

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.

Email is different from social networking because in an email application, each person maintains and owns their own address book, whereas in a social network your friends maintain their information and you just maintain a list of friends. Because of this, we think it makes sense for email applications to export email addresses and for social networks to export friend lists.

Unless It’s To Yahoo

So a social network like Facebook shouldn’t be exporting email addresses, just “friend lists.” Then explain this screen to me over at Yahoo:

That pretty much looks like Facebook is offering to export all the email addresses from my friends over into Yahoo. The same email addresses that supposedly, I have no right to mass export.

Unless It’s To Microsoft

Maybe this is just some strange one-off thing for Yahoo, though, right? Some unusual exception to Facebook’s “No, you can’t take emails out of Facebook” rule. Then again, over at Microsoft’s Windows Live, I get this:

Seems to me that this is like a social network (Facebook) offering to mass export my friends’ email addresses, just like a social network (Facebook) said social networks shouldn’t be doing.

What Exactly Is A “Friend List?”

Now you might recall a big Facebook event in early October, where Facebook announced they were “giving you more control” with the ability to export your Facebook information. Here’s the official Facebook blog post about it. The help page tells you that the download will include that “friend list” that Vernal, in his TechCrunch comment, said was appropriate for Facebook to export.

Well, I tried it today. Here’s a sample of what my friends list looks like:

It’s a text file. It is literally a plain-text list of names, and nothing more than that.

Friends Are URLs That Link To The Social Graph

I would argue that this is NOT my friend list. My friend list is actually a list of URLs to these people, to who they really are on Facebook, something more like this:

Otherwise, I could easily end up not knowing exactly who some of these people are, as people do share the same names.

More important, who you are as a friend on Facebook means pointing at your actual identity on Facebook, not just giving a name. It means pointing at a URL, pointing at “who” you are in terms of the “social graph” that Facebook itself has popularized. Disconnect a person from their Facebook URL, and they’re no longer a “friend,” not in the Facebook sense.

In short, this list is useless. It’s a nice PR stunt by Facebook, in line with what feels like was an earlier PR stunt about there supposedly being a Facebook “Open Graph” that anyone was able to tap into.

The Not So Open Graph

You’d think an Open Graph would solve Google’s dispute with Facebook. After all, Google could simply tap into the Facebook Open Graph and pull the information it wants.

Nope. As it turns out, the Open Graph is apparently not that open. Here’s what I covered earlier about Google CEO Eric Schmidt saying about that:

We want our core products to get better because of social information. The best thing that could happen would be if Facebook would open up its network and we just used that information to improve our ads and our search …. Failing that, there are other ways in which we could to get that information, is what we’re working on.

That confused me. I asked Schmidt why Google couldn’t use the Facebook’s Open Graph. His response:

Read the terms of service … trust me, read the terms of service

So I went through the terms, and this seemed to be the barrier:

You will not directly or indirectly transfer any data you receive from us to (or use such data in connection with) any ad network, ad exchange, data broker, or other advertising related toolset, even if a user consents to that transfer or use.

Presumably, Google believes that Facebook would view any use of Open Graph data as being employed in Google’s ad network. Or something — I sure as hell wish Schmidt would have simply explained what the issue really was.

Facebook: Open To Its Friends

Suffice to say, you cannot bring your Facebook contacts into Gmail, as you can with Yahoo and Microsoft. Thus, the issue clearly isn’t that Facebook doesn’t think you have the right to mass export emails. It seems that Facebook simply doesn’t want you to mass export them into Google — not unless, I suppose, it gets a business deal with Google. And if it doesn’t want to do a deal, then those emails don’t get to go. They aren’t yours. They belong to Facebook, and can only be exported to the business partners that Facebook agrees with.

Somewhat related, last month Facebook did a deal with Bing, so that Bing could personalize its search results using Facebook data. Why choose Bing over, say, Google. I mean besides the fact that Microsoft owns part of Facebook and that Facebook and Google have no love lost between them?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that Bing’s more innovative. That since they’re the “underdog,” I guess they’re a better partner to develop this data into whatever personalized search vision Facebook has. That there was nobody better he could think of to work with in search. This out of a universe of exactly two major search players, Bing and Google. To add to this, Facebook asserted that it does want to work with everybody — just, you know, not until it unilaterally decides that Bing has everything right.

Can Google Pay To Be Innovative?

You’re kidding me. Seriously, it’s a farce. Look, I like both Google and Bing. Bing IS doing really innovative stuff. But so is Google. And Google has major metric dog years of search experience. Google’s actually been running social search for over a year, whereas Bing has just been doing it for a month. Actually, less than that. That’s because despite announcing it would be available to everyone last month, Bing still took until this month to actually get it out there.

For Facebook to suggest that Google isn’t somehow as capable as Bing to use its social data would be like Google suggesting that Facebook isn’t as good as MySpace when it comes to social networking. It’s farcical. It’s especially farcical coming from a company whose COO Sheryl Sandberg came from Google, whose CTO Bret Taylor came from Google, where a large number of engineers also came from Google. What, they were lame and innovative at Google until they entered the Facebookplex?

The real answer at to why Facebook won’t export contact to Google or provide Google with its social data is simply: “There’s no friggin’ way we’re working with Google.” Just say that, and at least I’ve got more respect.

And Yes, Google Can Be Closed, Too

By the way, Facebook’s Vernal also poked back about how Google can say things about being open but might not do that when it’s inconvenient. Agreed, wholeheartedly! In fact, I did an entire post about that in the past. Check it out: Google: As Open As It Wants To Be (i.e., When It’s Convenient.

As I said, I’ll be following up with both Google and Facebook on the issue. In the meantime, a simple suggestion. If both sides are going to play the open card, then be open. If you’re not going to be open, then at least be open in saying that.

Postscript: See Google/Facebook Saga Continues: Google Warns Not To “Trap” Your Data for the next chapter in this fight.

Related Topics: Channel: Social | Facebook | Features: Analysis | Google: Business Issues | Top News


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • http://www.tcampbell.net T Campbell

    I love it when Danny puts a little emotion into it.

  • blakeross

    You’re wrong.

    Facebook does, of course, allow you to export unique identifiers and URLs for your friends. How else would Facebook Connect work? How would Yelp show you which restaurants your friends are reviewing if Facebook only exposed the text “Danny Sullivan”?

    Your “friend list” is accessible via the graph API: https://graph.facebook.com/me/friends?access_token=2227470867|2.GA9SJr4iR1DRzzNz8CCASw__.3600.1289358000-205733|TUnC6jAM9MO3KN9V0ZKdgvh4ZpU

    You can access your friends’ urls by plugging in their ID: http://facebook.com/profile.php?id=

  • http://phillipmalone.com mollyfud

    I know this first point isn’t the full issue,but as Facebook have showed that Googles openess (allowing you to download your contacts to a file) could get around the API limitation, Google should point out (as you have) that you can still import into Yahoo Mail and that then opens up the opportunity to then import those contacts into gmail. Not as easy as it should be but works!

    Your points about openess are well made. I disagree that much blame should go to Google. They didn’t start the war they are just trying to open things up for all of us! It was a pretty minor road block that they put in front of Facebook and (I am no Open Source expert but) isn’t it a bit in the Open Source manor of share your stuff as we share ours.

    I hope Facebook pull there finger out of their rears and just do the right thing!


  • http://www.eryckdzotsi.com Eryck Dzotsi

    Well Google has also stopped the direct export of contacts from Google to Facebook. And to counter that move, Facebook is linking the Google contact export feature and directing people as to how to do the basic Extract-Load of the data without using the API.

    This little war over data and information is a double-edged sword in that it would be similar to a nuclear supremacy race. The two camps and their allies Team Google vs Team Facebook will go through rapid upgrades and developments, each time upping the other. The “my data is bigger than yours” will push the two to have to reach a consensus at some point or another. The users benefit from this in that they will be getting more and more relevant and personalized experience. On the flip side, it creates marketing nightmares especially in the organic realms.

    Broad targeting and pull efforts will continue at a faster (dramatically faster ) pace to be substituted by smaller, and more customized campaigns. The analytical and campaign management tools will have to keep up with the power aforementioned. There are exciting times ahead.

  • http://phillipmalone.com mollyfud

    It could be argued that Facebook have stopped the “direct export of contacts from Google to Facebook” because they are unwilling to comply with the requirement to be consistent with there export rules (one for Yahoo/MS and a different one for Google).

    I don’t see Google shutting off the the export of the gmail contacts to file because Google believe its as important to let your uses get there data out as it is for them to be able to put it in. Facebook don’t have the same mantra!

    I like both services/companies, I just want them to fix this issue!

  • blakeross

    I guess only positive comments are allowed on this blog. So much for openness.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    No, Blake, it’s nit just that positive comments are allowed. It’s that you included 2 URLs that triggered the spam filter. Happens often with blog commenting software. I found it and released it from where it was held, after I saw your comment.

    Yes, you can use Facebook connect to one-by-one pull your friend information. Try to use it en masse, and you might be subject to Facebook’s terms, as I’ve described.

    But more specifically, Facebook provided an export tool that gave the appearance of allowing any user control over taking their data out of Facebook. As I explained, that tool doesn’t let you take your “friends” out other than a plain text list of names.

    Moreover, the statement that it cannot allow the export of email addresses simply doesn’t hold up when, as I also explained, it totally allows this for Yahoo and Microsoft.

    If Facebook doesn’t want to let people export their contacts to Google because it simply doesn’t trust Google or wants some type of business relationship, I get that. But then say that. Don’t say email export simply isn’t allowed when it’s obvious that it is, whenever Facebook so chooses.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    Molly, correct – you could export into Yahoo or Microsoft and use that as a channel to Google. Maybe Google will push that as a solution.

    Erick, Google has stopped the automated export of contacts into Facebook. But unlike Facebook, Google is still supporting the notion that your contacts are yours to take wherever you like. In terms of the arms race, I suppose the good news is that I don’t see Google preventing exports period from happening. They’ve pledged too loudly that your data should be portable to back away from that.

  • http://searchmarketingcommunications.com Tim Cohn

    I guess expunging Facebook’s 2,060,000,000 results from Google’s index is out of the question.


  • http://www.sharpseo.com Adam Sharp

    Taking Microsoft’s cash may prove to be a very short-sighted mistake for FB, in the not-too-distant future. It’s like marrying into a wealthy but bat-ass crazy family. There are a few pluses ($$), but the negatives will pile up over time. Pretty soon, Ballmer is calling at 3:30 in the morning with a crackpot idea about doing a free print version of Facebook (like the Yellowpages) to “juice up the web hits, baby”. It won’t end well.

  • http://www.antezeta.com/blog/ Sean Carlos

    I was unable to get the export to Yahoo to actually work (0 contacts exported, a seemingly common problem), but Facebook does currently export to gmx.com – and that seems to work fine. GMX users can then export their data in csv and vcard formats.

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