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windowslive032508.pngThere’s a new trick that tech companies are using to get a little positive press. It’s simple: Just make an announcement that includes the words “data portability” and “social networks” and you’ll probably get an explosion of coverage. Today, for example, Microsoft is announcing that five social networks are going to start using its official contact importer from Windows Live Messenger.

Yes, today, from Facebook (pictured, above) or Bebo, you can search and invite friends to join either site, by perusing your list of Windows Live Messenger contacts. Microsoft will also be working with LinkedIn, Hi5 and Tagged in the coming months.

So literally, Microsoft is making your IM contacts portable, but this is nothing earth-shattering by any means, even though the company used the term “data portability” in its press release — AOL’s AIM, Yahoo’s Messenger, Google’s Gtalk, among others, have already offered this same service for years.

The other angle to this story is that Microsoft is using this announcement to advertise its Windows Live Messenger service, where you can find friends within social networks and invite them to chat. Two notes on that.

One is that social networks already have their own IM efforts. Facebook is working on its own chat service that lives within its site. Same with Bebo, which is working on integrating its new parent AOL’s AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) service. I’m not sure any of these users will want to go to Microsoft’s service instead.

The other note is that this announcement may actually explain rumors from a couple months ago about Microsoft strong-arming any startup that tried to extract its chat service’s data without asking. Since last summer, Microsoft has been sending cease-and-desist letters to these startups, Fortune’s Josh Quitter reported. Those letters were followed by meetings between the startups and Microsoft reps, where Microsoft would demand that its contact importer be featured in the most prominent location. If the startups “wanted to use the other IM services, it must pay Microsoft 25 cents a user per year for a site license,” the report said, a fee that would be “discounted 100 percent” if they used Messenger exclusively.

So far, neither Facebook nor Bebo appear to be giving Microsoft top billing, and it’s hard to imagine either one paying even Microsoft 25 cents per user per year. Especially now that Microsoft’s data is portable.

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