Moving to Google+? Facebook won't let you go

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Talk about juxtapositions. Last week, Google quietly unleashed the Data Liberation Front and tool Takeout for moving user data from the company's services. Would you like to switch from Gmail to Windows Live Mail? Google Takeout can help. Over at Facebook, however, matters are quite different -- as one tool for extracting friend data shows. The world's largest social network wants to keep your friends. But you knew that already, right?

Developer Mohamed Mansour's tool Facebook Friend Exporter revved to version 2.2.1 yesterday. CNET's Stephen Shankland blogged about the Chrome Extension then, and Mashable's Eric Swallow today. Perhaps the utility got a wee bit too much attention. Mansour posted to the download page today: "Facebook is trying so hard to not allow you to export your friends. They started to remove emails of your friends from your profile by today July 5th 2011. It will no longer work for many people". I can't get the extension to work, BTW.

Mansour is not giving up. "New version with a different design is currently deploying. You might have to do exports daily. It uses a different approach, and I will maintain this version. Just bear with me".

The timing may not be coincidental, or about a little publicity. One week ago, Google unveiled the + social networking service, which is available on an invite-only basis during the early testing phase. The experience starts from Google's search page, allowing people to create discreet "Circles" for sharing statuses, location, photos, videos and more, and users can group chat or video call as well. Google+ is getting rave responses from early users, and I'm among them.

I'm ready to chuck Facebook for Google+, I like it so much. Others considering similar move might want to get out their friend data -- hence what makes Mansour's tool potentially appealing to so many Facebookers. Problem: Facebook Friend Exporter almost certainly violates Section 3.2 of the social network's terms of service: "You will not collect users' content or information, or otherwise access Facebook, using automated means (such as harvesting bots, robots, spiders, or scrapers) without our permission".

Limited data portability -- and I'm being generous using that modifier -- is the main reason I've not been a big Facebook user, even though I signed up as soon as the service opened to the public five years ago. Facebook deserves credit for providing (late last year) a tool for exporting videos, photos, Wall posts and some other info. But friends' data is stickier. Today, I used Facebook's exporter, which provides the list of friends but no other information associated with them.

During the initial setup, Facebook Friend Exporter has a "couple of questions for you".

1. Does Facebook own your friends?

2. Do you think Facebook owns the data about your friends, such as their email, their website, their IM name, etc. that they made public for you to see?

3. Do you think your Facebook friends would mind if you, oh, we don't know, decided one day to email them, or visit their website? How about add them to your address book on your phone?

If you answered "no" to the above questions, we can help you get your friends' contact info out of Facebook. We can export the info to your Google Contacts (Gmail), among other things!

In a Google+ post, ubergeek Robert Scoble asks: "Are you really shocked that Facebook doesn't want you to take your social data somewhere else? I guess people forget that I was kicked off of Facebook back in 2008 for trying to do exactly that!" I remember the incident, which caused quite the row in techdom for and against his actions and also Facebook's.

Regarding friends' data and scraping it, there are legitimate reasons why Facebook would prohibit it. Privacy is one. Facebook rightly doesn't want marketers or cybercriminals taking massive amounts of personal data. Then there is the question too rarely asked after the oft-asked "Does Facebook own your friends?": Do you own your friends personal data? The answer can go both ways. If the friend gives you access to it, you could say yes. But Facebook could argue no because the permission is within the confines of the service. Then again, Facebook's mobile apps can sync friends data to users' phones, which would refute the permission defense.

More fundamentally, Facebook is first and foremost about relationships. Friend data is the lock and key keeping those relationships on Facebook rather than letting them migrate to another social network.

Writing in response to one of Mansour's posts on Google+, developer Daniel Buchner writes: "The funniest thing, is that this will cause people to become angry at Facebook and leave more quickly". Is he right?

Update 7:05 p.m. EDT: Facebook Friend Exporter appears to be working again, but I'm not sure for how long. It looks like Mansour updated the extension as promised. About 6:40 p.m., my Chrome browser disabled the extension because of new permissions. I accepted them, trucked over to Facebook and activated the import process; my friends data is being pulled out as I write.

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