Is Google's data spat with Facebook a prelude to social war?

Last week’s dispute between Google and Facebook continued today over a rather arcane topic — data portability.

Google appeared to pick a fight last week, when it changed its terms of service to block an application from importing your Google contacts if that application doesn’t allow you to later export that data to another app. It was obviously a move to block Facebook, and Google even released a statement saying that the social network and sites with similar policies “leave users in a data dead end.”

Last night, TechCrunch reported that Facebook has created a workaround — a single page where users can select one button to download their Google contacts onto their computer desktop, then another to upload the file into Facebook. Users could already do this on their own, but the simple two-button approach makes it much easier.

Then Google responded by sending out the following statement to a bunch of tech reporters this morning:

We’re disappointed that Facebook didn’t invest their time in making it possible for their users to get their contacts out of Facebook. As passionate believers that people should be able to control the data they create, we will continue to allow our users to export their Google contacts.

At first, the whole exchange seems a bit strange. Is it fair for Google to ask, “Why should we share our data with you if you’re not sharing anything with us?” Sure. But the company seems to be devoting a lot of self-righteousness to a relatively minor feature.

The argument makes more sense in the context of a larger competition between Google and Facebook. Google executives have complained that too much data is locked up inside Facebook and hidden from search engines, a situation exacerbated (from Google’s perspective) by Facebook’s decision to share some of that social data with Google’s competitor Bing.

Meanwhile, Google is working on its own social products. While the exact nature of those products remains unclear, we and other reporters have heard that Facebook is developing its own improvements as a way to fight back. Google has struggled with its social networking strategy in the past, and once these skirmishes turn into a real social battle, the search giant could be at an even bigger disadvantage if Facebook can access Google’s social data, while Facebook’s social data is blocked off from Google.

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