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5/27/2008
07:13 PM
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Facebook Says It Will 'Open-Source' Its Platform

Facebook's decision to open its platform comes less than two weeks after the social network began denying Google's Friend Connect.

Facebook on Tuesday confirmed that it plans to open the source code to the Facebook platform, but it did not share specifics.

"We're working on an open source initiative that is meant to help application developers better understand Facebook Platform and more easily build applications, whether it's by running their own test servers, building tools, or optimizing their applications," a Facebook spokesperson said via e-mail. "As Facebook Platform continues to mature, open sourcing the infrastructure behind it is a natural step so developers can build richer social applications and share what they've learned with the ecosystem. Additional details will be released soon."

Facebook's decision to open its platform comes less than two weeks after the social network began denying Google's Friend Connect -- a service for adding social features to any Web site -- access to Facebook data.

The reason, according to Facebook engineer Charlie Cheever, is that Friend Connect distributes user information to third-party developers in violation of Facebook's privacy policy. By using the term "open source," it remains to be seen if Facebook means that it will license portions of its code to the GNU GPL or if it refers to relaxing access to its APIs as part of the DataPortability Project.

Joe Kraus, director of product management at Google, disputed Facebook's privacy claims and characterized the issue as one of control. Friend Connect, he said, gives users more control over their data. He left unstated the obvious implication: that Facebook is afraid to give users control of their data.

Facebook is clearly sensitive to criticism that it's not open enough and that it's trying to revive the walled-garden business model that AOL not long ago abandoned. Earlier this month, it launched Facebook Connect, a way to connect one's Facebook identity, friends, and privacy settings to any site.

Openness, it seems, is in the air. Earlier this month, MySpace announced that it will be implementing its Data Availability initiative with the likes of eBay, Photobucket, Twitter, and Yahoo as a way to simplify the sharing social data across Web sites. It also joined the DataPortability Project, which counts Google, Facebook, and Plaxo as members.

And in February, Google introduced its Social Graph API to give developers an easier way to make use of social data in their applications.

But it remains to be seen whether open sourcing the Facebook platform has any meaning in the context of social networks, where the value lies in the data rather than the platform infrastructure. If Facebook continues to restrict access to user profiles on the basis of purported privacy risks, the opening of its platform will hardly matter.

Given the push toward openness and data portability, along with recent developments like Wetpaint's Injected, which lets users add collaborative editing to any Web site, it's clear that most of the social connectivity applications will be available on any Web site that wants them in the future. That begs the question: How long will social destinations like Facebook and MySpace last if social computing no longer requires visiting a specific destination?

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