Google: Facebook and Apple threaten Internet freedom

Google co-founder Sergey Brin has listed three threats to Internet freedom: Facebook, Apple, and governments that censor their citizens. This isn't the first time Google has been critical of all three.
Written by Emil Protalinski, Contributor

Update - Google co-founder: Actually, I admire Facebook and Apple

Back in September 2011, a Google executive said Facebook was becoming "a closed walled garden". Google co-founder Sergey Brin has now taken that comment further, saying that Facebook is becoming a threat to the Internet, along with Apple, and of course the various governments trying to censor their citizens. Just last week, the hacktivist group Anonymous hacked three U.K. government websites over what it called the country's "draconian surveillance proposals" and "derogation of civil rights."

Brin's comments were made to The Guardian:

The threat to the freedom of the internet comes, he claims, from a combination of governments increasingly trying to control access and communication by their citizens, the entertainment industry's attempts to crack down on piracy, and the rise of "restrictive" walled gardens such as Facebook and Apple, which tightly control what software can be released on their platforms.

He said he was most concerned by the efforts of countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and Iran to censor and restrict use of the internet, but warned that the rise of Facebook and Apple, which have their own proprietary platforms and control access to their users, risked stifling innovation and balkanising the web.

"There's a lot to be lost," he said. "For example, all the information in apps – that data is not crawlable by web crawlers. You can't search it."

Brin argued he and co-founder Larry Page would not have been able to create Google if Facebook had been there first. This is because search engines require an open Web, and too many rules not only close it down, but they "stifle innovation," Brin said. He of course didn't mention anything about Google's Search plus Your World (SPYW) feature, which mainly prioritizes Google+ over other social networks.

Facebook and Google had a huge battle back in November 2010 (before Google+ existed) over exporting contacts. It all started when Google banned Facebook from accessing Gmail contact data by tweaking the Terms of Service for its Google Contacts Data API so that websites which access Google Contacts had to offer access to their data too.

Facebook still wanted its new users to find out whether their Gmail contacts also have Facebook accounts, so it implemented a workaround: the company told its users to use a Google feature that helped them download their own data, and then instructed them to upload the file back to Facebook. In an attempt to convince you not to take your contacts to the social network, Google then fought back by showing a big warning message when Facebook users came to export their contact data from Gmail. Facebook probably thought this would hurt its image, so not only did it remove the instructions and direct download links to Gmail contacts, but the company decided to remove support for Gmail contact importing completely.

In doing so, Facebook finished the war that Google started, but there really wasn't a clear winner. Google's goal was to get access to Facebook's data, but it did not achieve this. Facebook, on the other hand, made it very difficult for Gmail users to add their friends (read: you now have to do it manually). In the end, the users lost the most.

In July 2011, third-parties attempted to offer ways to export your Facebook friends, but Facebook has blocked them all. In August 2011, Facebook started letting you export your Facebook friends' email addresses, but with a catch: your friends have to let you first.

Facebook included e-mail addresses in its Download Your Information tool, but cleverly only allowed you to get the e-mail addresses of your friends that have enabled the new feature (Account Settings => Email => Edit => Allow friends to include my email address in Download Your Information).

Since the feature is unchecked by default, in order to get all of your friends' e-mail addresses, all your friends have to opt-in. It would be faster to go to all of their profiles and just copy their email addresses manually, which is exactly what everyone who wants to export their Facebook contacts is trying to avoid.

Facebook did this to deflect criticism and be able to argue it offers the feature, but its users aren't giving each other permission to take advantage of it. In essence, Facebook moved the blame from itself to your friends.

E-mail addresses are the key to exporting your contacts and importing them elsewhere. Facebook has been so insistent on not letting anyone near them because it knows its social graph is very valuable. If Menlo Park made it possible to quickly export your Facebook friends, the company would essentially be making it easier for you to move to another service, such as Google+.

Brin of course took the opportunity to criticise Facebook for not making it easy for users to switch their data to other services. "Facebook has been sucking down Gmail contacts for many years," he told The Guardian. Well, yes, but technically the company stopped doing that almost two years ago.

The bigger issue is about how the company handles exporting of user data, and that's what Brin was really getting at with his open Internet comments. Apps are just an extension of that: Google would love to get in and see what you're doing inside your Facebook and iOS apps.

Update - Google co-founder: Actually, I admire Facebook and Apple

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