Google Unlocks The Data That Facebook Hoards

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The Data Liberation Front fights Facebook by making it easy for users to take Google+ data with them

Google’s Data Liberation Front (DLF) added the ability for users to export lists of the Websites they recommend to other users via the Google+1 button. The DLF is an engineering team at Google “whose singular goal is to make it easier for users to move their data in and out of Google products”.

The button allows users to recommend search results or advertisements they like while using Google. The service was given more relevance on June 28 with the launch of Google+, a social network that allows shared links to videos and photos, and allows users to point to “+1” content.

Google Content To Go

On the day Google+ launched for limited field-testing, the DLF unveiled Google Takeout, which lets users export their data from Google Buzz, Google Contacts and Google+ Profile, Circles and Streams, as well as Picasa Web Albums, which provides the picture storage foundation for Google+.

Google+ and Google+1 should be a boon for the DLF, launched in September 2009 to let users free data from Gmail, Google AdWords, Google Chrome and other company products.

Helmed by Google engineering manager Brian Fitzpatrick, the Front has applied a quasi-militaristic, semi-serious approach to letting users shuttle data they create via Google Web services outside those applications:

This is because Google is stressing that it has taken an open or die position to freeing up user data, something rival Facebook has been reticent to do as it built out its massive walled garden of 750 million-plus users.

Facebook allows users to download their data and take it with them but Fitzpatrick has said the approach is not open, compared with Google, which uses “portable and open formats‚ so it’s easy to import to other services quickly.”

This is one of the reasons developers have created tools such as Move2Picasa, which lets users shuttle their Facebook photos to Picasa Web Albums on Google+.

Facebook blocked Facebook Friend Exporter, a Chrome extension that automates the extraction of user data and Open-Xchange’s Social OX, which lets users take their contact list to other services such as Google+.

Facebook’s terms of service give it the right to block such data-scraping tools, but Google’s point with Takeout is that developers should not have to craft such tools to help Facebook users dance around data exports.

This is not the first time Google has been down this road with Facebook. Late last year, Facebook blocked Gmail users from exporting their Facebook contact info to Gmail.

However, Facebook users could export their Gmail contacts to populate their accounts on the social network. Google tried to block this move, but Facebook worked around it.

In an informal chat session conducted with journalists via Google+ Hangouts group video chat application, Fitzpatrick said he and his team intentionally launched Google Takeout the same day as the Google+ field test launch because they want users to know that Google is going to respect their data.

Fitzpatrick said Google does not want to create another way to lock users in on the Web, freeing them up to try a competing product or create a backup copy for themselves.

He declined to mention Facebook by name during the chat, though he did say that his Front and Takeout service is designed to ensure Google’s own innovation and implied Facebook locks people in to keep users ensconced in the service’s network.

“Our thought is, we don’t want to create another way of locking users in on the Web,” Fitzpatrick said. “The more you lock your users in, the less hard you have to work to keep them.”

He then added a cautionary tale regarding where Facebook could be going wrong, again without mentioning the company by name:

“If someone is hot on your tail in innovation and your product, the only way to keep ahead of them is to continue innovating because, if you lock your users in and stop developing the product, what you are going to find is that there is some start-up out there, or some other company, that really wants these users’ business. They are going to work really hard to come up with a product that is super-innovative, or better than yours, and eventually your users will leave,” he cautioned.

Conversely, Fitzpatrick believes the easier a company makes it for users to leave a Web service with their data intact, the more comfortable they will feel about staying.

It is early days for Google+, so it is too early to say whether he is right but it is certainly the flip side to the approach Facebook has taken.

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