SUCH is Facebook’s attraction these days that even Britain’s monarch has finally joined the 500m-plus users of the online social network. On November 8th Queen Elizabeth II launched a Facebook page to publicise the royal family’s doings. Within a day, it had attracted almost 200,000 “likes” from around the world plus messages such as “Hello Liz xxx”. But it had also turned into a forum for an acrimonious slanging match between supporters of the monarchy and its critics.
Buckingham Palace says that the Queen’s e-mail address, if she has one, is secret. But it will not end in gmail.com. That will spare her from another wrangle—a kind of digital trade war. On November 5th Google introduced a technical change that blocks its e-mail users from automatically transferring their electronic address book in one lump when they set up a Facebook account. It is part of Google’s efforts to defend its dominance of the internet from Facebook’s growing challenge (as is Google’s announcement this week giving all its 23,000 employees a 10% pay rise and a $1,000 bonus, which is an attempt to halt defections to Facebook).
Both Google and Facebook are run like absolute monarchies in which hundreds of millions of users (digital serfs, some might say) have created identities. Rather like mercantilist countries in the offline realm, both companies operate policies to protect this asset.
Google stoked the trade war because it wants to add what it calls a “social layer” to existing products such as picture-sharing and e-mail, making it look more like Facebook. It would help Google if users could bring their contacts to its services from other sites. But Facebook, the world’s biggest social network, wants to keep control of its serfs’ data and therefore stops them exporting contacts easily.
At first, Google argued that Facebook users would benefit if their contact data could be transferred with a click. When that argument failed, the search firm put diplomacy aside and stopped the automatic flow of data in the other direction. Facebook has now partially restored it. Google’s users can manually download their contacts and upload them to Facebook. Google then upped the ante by posting a warning: “Once you import your data there, you won’t be able to get it out.”
This raises thorny questions about digital feudalism and the law. Google believes users own information such as their e-mail address books, and should be able to take it with them wherever they go on the web. The company even has a “data liberation” team that builds tools to simplify such imports and exports. In contrast, Facebook argues that the owner of the e-mail address, not someone who has collected it, should decide where and how it is shared.
Facebook’s position smacks of hypocrisy. The firm has been able to grow so fast precisely because it has sucked in e-mail addresses from new members, enabling them to see which of their contacts are also on the network. Moreover, it is hard to imagine a system in which individuals must give permission each time a friend wants to transfer their contact details. “In the long-run Google occupies the higher moral ground,” says Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land, a blog.
For years the web has flourished by making information accessible to anyone online, anywhere. The digital trade wars threaten to reverse the gains of this globalisation. This spat will not be the last, and the combatants in future tussles will include old offline powers. Germany, for instance, recently introduced an identity card that lets citizens authenticate themselves online—thus creating an alternative to both Google’s and Facebook’s systems for proving identity. Britain may wish to follow suit. It is odd that the Queen’s online persona is administered by an empire based in America, with scant regard for constitutional niceties.
from PRINT EDITION | International