Jun. 18, 2008

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A Gate for the Walled Garden

In researching my last post, I came across an interesting clause in the Facebook Developer TOS:

You may retain copies of Exportable Facebook Properties for such period of time (if any) as the Applicable Facebook User for such Exportable Facebook Properties may approve, if (and only if) such Applicable Facebook User expressly approves your doing so pursuant to an affirmative “opt-in” after receiving a prominent disclosure of (a) the uses you intend to make of such Exportable Facebook Properties, (b) the duration for which you will retain copies of such Exportable Facebook Properties and (c) any terms and conditions governing your use of such Exportable Facebook Properties (a “Full Disclosure Opt-In”)

This paragraph is specifically mentioned as an exception to such rules as the 24-hour limit on caching data.  It thus allows an application to retrieve, use, and save any exportable properties it can access, so long as it first gets informed consent from the user.

So why have developers not taken advantage of this to export Facebook data?  Well, there’s just one catch – Facebook has more unicorns than “Exportable Facebook Properties.”  In other words, there aren’t any.

I have to wonder why Facebook included this section in their TOS.  It certainly gives them a way to allow exports without modifying their other strict rules, but note that the Developer TOS was updated nearly a year ago.  And in the past eleven months, plenty of analysts, developers, and – no joke – users have clamored for this kind of functionality.  Facebook’s approach negates most questions of privacy – the data is only exported if a user has giving their full permission with full knowledge of what will happen, and many users want to give that permission.

So the $64,000 question: Why hasn’t Facebook taken advantage of their exportable properties clause?

One can certainly give arguments, such as the claim it would ruin their business to allow exports.  Yet if a user intends to leave Facebook, he/she will probably do so regardless of export features.  And if it’s such a threat, why include this provision to start with?  Besides, Facebook joined a data portability group in January.  Much data is already available to users via FriendCSV, which also shows exports are not difficult to achieve from a technical perspective.

Once again, using exportable properties would not threaten a user’s privacy, since it requires “Full Disclosure Opt-in.”  This would not be the end-all means of connecting other applications with Facebook.  Now, could an application simply lie to a user about use of their data?  Well, good question – but applications already run on the honor system.

I personally see few excuses here.  Facebook has everything in place to allow for one simple means of data portability – letting a user automatically export the data they can already access if they want to.  (I’ve raised the question before whether info on friends is a user’s data or a friend’s data, but really data portability is similar to the News Feed in that in makes information easier to get to and use rather than enabling access to new information.)

So once again, why hasn’t Facebook provided even one “exportable property”?  I don’t really expect an answer, but the question makes me somewhat skeptical of Facebook’s support for data portability.


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