Google Battles Facebook Over Email Contacts

Dennis Faas's picture

Google plans to bar other companies from accessing information in its Gmail service, even with user permission. There's suspicion the scheme is designed to increase competition between Google and social media services such as Facebook.

Facebook is actually one the best examples of how the change will apply in action. At the moment, when a new user signs up to the site, Facebook asks if they want to import their contacts list from their email account. If they do so, Facebook then cross-references this list, finds anyone who is already on Facebook, and asks if the user wants to add them as an online friend.

This is a useful tool: it means that the user will often have dozens of Facebook friends as soon as they start using the site and makes it much more likely they will decide to stick around rather than let their account lie dormant.

Google to Block Contact List Access Via API

This import works through an Application Programming Interface (API), the way in which a website makes its data available for programmers. A well-known example is the Twitter API, which allows the existence of numerous standalone applications that can read the posts on a Twitter account without the need to visit the official website.

Google now says it will not allow Gmail contact details to be imported automatically via its API unless the other site allows Google to access its API in similar fashion. It specifically mentioned Facebook as one of the offenders: the site generally only makes its API available to paid partners. (Source:

Gmail users will still be able to use the service to download a list of contacts that they can manually upload to Facebook for checking.

All's Fair in Love and War?

There's a lot of debate in the tech community today about whether Google is in the right to do so. On the face of it, it does appear to be making a reasonable request (or demand, depending on your viewpoint): if Facebook expects to be able to receive data automatically, it should share it on a similar basis. (Source:

However, others have argued that the decision is as much about competition as it is a point of principle. Even though its high-profile social networking tool Buzz proved largely unsuccessful, Google has shown an increasing interest in getting into the social networking market. With that in mind, it certainly doesn't do it any harm to cause a problem for Facebook.

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