Email address – Stay N Alive

Facebook, Play the Higher Ground

I was wrong.

On Twitter, Buzz, and on Scoble’s blog I was insisting there was a way to retrieve Email addresses via Facebook‘s API.  That’s because I truly thought there was.  In fact, I had this scathing blog post ready criticizing Google on playing games with Facebook (which I think is wrong and evil, too) when all Google had to do is embrace Facebook’s API, something Gmail has been reluctant to do for some reason.  However, that aside, I’d like to put the Onus on Facebook this time.  It’s time for Facebook to stick to their guns, fix their API, and make this stuff a little more open than before.

By open, I don’t mean take away any privacy controls.  I don’t mean release any e-mail addresses or phone numbers that my friends are hiding from my view.  I don’t mean releasing any e-mail addresses or phone numbers that my friends haven’t approved 3rd party apps from taking.  I mean, respectful of privacy, let this data go!  It’s time.

Here’s what Facebook needs to do:

  • First, they need a global privacy control for each user, that is opt-out only if they’ve already opted into their friends seeing their e-mail address.  There should be a big message at the top when you log into Facebook giving users the option to opt out, with a user-friendly description telling what that means.  (part of the problem is many users won’t even understand this, for which I sympathize with Facebook)
  • Second, they need one more extended permission apps must be granted by users that authenticate through Facebook: “friends_emails” – if you want to also enable friend phone numbers (which I also recommend), add “friends_phones”.  This way, I, the user, get to decide and have to make the choice if I want that application to access my friends’, through the social contract I made with them, e-mail addresses and phone numbers.

Right now the only way to access e-mail address information is either through a special deal Facebook has with Yahoo, a special deal Facebook has with Microsoft, or the Facebook app on several mobile devices.  There is no way for an average developer to access this stuff.  It’s not in FQL.  It’s not in the old REST API.  It’s not in the new Graph API.  Technically, if I have each and every one of my friends come in and log into my application I could get them to all give me permission to get their e-mail address, but that to me seems like a really flawed way to allow me to share their e-mail addresses.  Facebook can do better than this – they’re much smarter than this.  They can make this work for everyone if they try.  Right now it just looks like you are hanging on for dear life to my data.  Maybe that’s the case, but it isn’t right.

I hope Facebook can play the higher ground on this.  I hope this is only a technical hurdle.  Facebook did make it possible to export all your data, including e-mail addresses, earlier, so I see this as an ongoing trend and I hope this is on the radar (although my request to download my data failed for some reason).  I see this as an opportunity where Facebook could be made out to be the good guy, and then afterwards no one would probably even notice the feature’s there.

Just do it.