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Google snips Facebook's Gmail line

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Google has fired the latest salvo in its ongoing war with Facebook over who gets to know who your friends are, updating its terms of service so that Facebook can't access Gmail's Contacts API unless Zuckerberg and company offer a similar API. Mountain View has already started to cut Facebook's access to the Google API, according to a source familiar with the matter.

This means that if you sign up for a new Facebook account, you may not be able to directly import names and addresses from Gmail. Facebook has long prevented Google services from offering users the option of accessing contact information from Facebook "friends lists".

This is in stark contrast to the Google Contacts API, which lets any third-party service or application provide tools for importing contacts from Gmail, including email addresses. Facebook has long provided users with this sort of import-from-Gmail option. But Google is now pulling the plug on Facebook's import tool, and it won't restore access unless Facebook provides similar access to Facebook friends lists.

In 2008, Facebook barred the use of Google's Friend Connect, designed to let people easily export their friends list from Facebook and other social networking sites. Facebook said Friend Connect violated its privacy policies, but Google said it didn't.

As Google cracks down on Facebook's use of the Google Contacts API, it's unclear whether the company is taking similar measures with other companies. But, according to a source familiar with the matter, Google will "show some flexibility" with smaller operations who may not have the resources they need to offer automatic access to their contacts lists — meaning that smaller shops who don't reciprocate may still be able to access the Google API.

Google made the change to its Contacts API terms of service on Thursday. "By accessing Content through the Contacts Data API or Portable Contacts API for use in your service or application," they now tell third-party developers, "you are agreeing to enable your users to export their contacts data to other services or applications of their choice in a way that’s substantially as fast and easy as exporting such data from Google Contacts, subject to applicable laws."

Asked to comment, Google sent us the same statement it sent to TechCrunch, which first reported the terms of service change. "Google is committed to making it easy for users to get their data into and out of Google products," the statement reads. "That is why we have a data liberation engineering team dedicated to building import and export tools for users. We are not alone. Many other sites allow users to import and export their information, including contacts, quickly and easily. But sites that do not, such as Facebook, leave users in a data dead end.

"So we have decided to change our approach slightly to reflect the fact that users often aren’t aware that once they have imported their contacts into sites like Facebook they are effectively trapped. Google users will still be free to export their contacts from our products to their computers in an open, machine-readable format — and once they have done that they can then import those contacts into any service they choose. However, we will no longer allow websites to automate the import of users’ Google Contacts (via our API) unless they allow similar export to other sites."

Facebook didn't immediately provide a response to Google's change. But a company spokeswoman said a statement was on the way.

Though Facebook does not provide a Google Contacts–like API, it does have deals with Microsoft and Yahoo! that let those companies input Facebook contacts into Hotmail and Yahoo! mail. Facebook also offers a tool that lets you download data from the site, but although it lets you download names of contacts, you can't download email addresses and phone numbers.

Facebook has what Google wants: a sweeping picture of who knows who on the internet, a so-called "social graph" that spans 500 million people. As Google continues its efforts to more closely target online ads, such information is invaluable. That's why it's so desperate to succeed with its own social networking service. And why it's trying to force Facebook's hand by severing the company's access to its API. ®

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