Google has opened up yet another front in its longstanding war with Facebook over who gets to know who your friends are, updating its Nexus S Android phone so that the handset's contacts application no longer dovetails with Mark Zuckerberg's social networking behemoth.
Mountain View is still unhappy with Facebook's refusal to offer API access to user "friends lists". In November, Google cut Facebook's line to Gmail's contacts API and said it wouldn't restore the connection until Facebook introduced a similar API. Facebook, well, hasn't. So, in another effort to loosen Facebook's hold on the so-called "social graph", Google has tweaked the Nexus S contacts app.
Originally, the app let you display contacts stored with Google alongside your Facebook friends data, including friends' phone numbers and email addresses. But it didn't actually transfer the data from the social network - Facebook doesn't, er, offer a contacts API - and this wasn't a setup Google could live with. In an over-the-air update to the Nexus S - the "lead" Android phone, carrying software controlled solely by Google - the company has removed the app's ability to play nicely with Facebook.
“We believe it is very important that users are able to control their data," the company said in a statement originally sent to TechCrunch. "For Nexus S users who downloaded the Facebook app from Android Market, Facebook contacts will no longer appear to be integrated with the Android Contacts app. Since Facebook contacts cannot be exported from the device, the appearance of integration created a false sense of data portability."
Google then reiterated that it wants a Facebook contacts API similar to Gmail's."We continue to believe that reciprocity (the expectation that if information can be imported into a service it should be able to be exported) is an important step toward creating a world of true data liberation — and encourage other websites and app developers to allow users to export their contacts as well.”
A company spokesman told us that the Nexus One - the precursor to the Nexus S - will continue to offer a contacts app that dovetails with Facebook because the device originally shipped with a Facebook application preloaded. "There is a different expectation with the Nexus One," he said. And he pointed out that users who download Facebook's app to the Nexus S will still be able to view all their Facebook data through that app. They just can't view it through the phone's integrated contacts interface.
"It's important to note that Facebook contact data is still available in the Facebook app," he said. "We’re removing special-case handling of Facebook contacts. This is about leveling the playing field for developers."
That's a reference to Facebook's nonexistent contacts API. In pushing Facebook for an API, Google may have developers in mind. But it has itself in mind as well. Clearly, Google wants access to Facebook's oh-so-valuable data.
In 2008, Google introduced Friend Connect, designed to let netizens easily export their friends list from Facebook and other social networking sites, but Facebook barred its use. Facebook claimed Friend Connect violated its privacy policies, though Google said it didn't.
After Google snipped its Gmail line, a Facebook engineer said that Facebook did not offer a Gmail-like contacts API because a social network isn't an email service. "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," he said.
"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."
Of course, Facebook now doubles as an email service. But this hasn't changed its stance.
Though Facebook doesn't offer a contacts API along, it does have private agreements with Microsoft and Yahoo! that let those companies input Facebook contacts into Hotmail and Yahoo! mail. So Facebook will share contacts data if it feels like.
Like Google, it realizes how valuable that data is. For both, the data is a way of targeting ads - and perhaps enhancing other services as well, such as search.
The Nexus S update isn't likely to force an API out of Mark Zuckerberg. It's just one Android phone among so many, and if Facebook didn't back down after the Gmail change, it's not backing down now. But Google said it intends to maintain the same un-Facebook app on all future "lead" Android phones, and at least in a small way, it's encouraging people to store their contact data with Google rather than Mark Zuckerberg. ®