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Facebook vs. Google and the Battle for Identity on the Web [OP-ED]

The Social Analyst is a column by Mashable Co-Editor Ben Parr, where he digs into social media trends and how they are affecting companies in the space.

Facebook and Google are waging a bitter battle over data portability and the control of your identity on the web. Unfortunately, it’s a battle in which nobody will emerge as the victor, certainly not the millions of users who are now caught in the crossfire.

Last week, Google (Google) changed its Terms of Service so that anybody utilizing its Contacts API is required to reciprocate by exporting its contacts back to Google. In other words, if a company or social network wants to let users import their Gmail (gmail) friends so their users can find their friends, then it has to allow for the same type of importing.

For most companies, this isn’t a problem, but there is a big company that doesn’t offer reciprocity: Facebook (Facebook). The social network doesn’t allow Google users to import their Facebook contacts for products like Gmail, Buzz or Orkut (Orkut). Thus, Google blocked Facebook’s access to its Contacts API.

That’s when things got interesting. Following Google’s decision to deny Facebook API access, Facebook decided to circumvent Google by giving users an easy option to download their Gmail contacts and then upload them to Facebook. As AOL’s TechCrunch notes, it’s essentially Facebook’s way of telling the search giant to go to hell.

The Google vs. Facebook Battle

Google and Facebook’s battle isn’t simply about any one company blocking access to data or acting juvenile; the stakes are nothing less than complete dominance of the web. As we’ve noted in the past, Google and Facebook are locked in a heated battle to become your default social profile. Whichever company controls identity on the web, controls the web.

Currently Facebook and Google dominate third-party sign-in options on the web, but Facebook’s growth as an identity platform has been ascending; more than 10,000 website integrate with Facebook every day, thanks in no small part to the explosive growth of the Facebook Open Graph. Can you believe that Facebook’s “Like” button, now ubiquitous across the web, launched not even seven months ago?

Facebook has become so aggressive that Google has reacted with some big social moves of its own. It recently acquired Slide and Ångströ, reportedly for Google Me, the search giant’s rumored next attempt at competing with social networks. However, rumors are no longer focused on Google building a social network; many now believe the company is likely building more social features into all of its products.

Regardless of what exactly Google is building, it’s clear that Google is building something. And the reason they’re reacting so feverishly is because the world’s largest social network is increasing its control of the web. Google’s can’t afford for Facebook to control identity on the web, which is what prompted the change to the search giant’s Terms of Service in the first place.

The Battle Over Identity: Nobody Wins

“Facebook has been a one-way beneficiary of data portability for far too long,” DataPortability Project co-founder Chris Saad told me. “Google asking for reciprocity from equal peers on the Internet (Internet) is a perfectly reasonable, if not overdue, move.”

In this debate, I believe Google has every legitimate reason to ask for reciprocity; why should Facebook benefit from Google’s Contacts API if Google can’t get the same benefit? More importantly, why should Google give any ground to its new rival?

Yet in the end, it’s not Facebook or Google that will suffer for this battle over identity on the web. It’s the users that will lose out.

Facebook won’t be using Gmail contacts anytime soon and don’t hold your breath for Facebook Connect on Google. These moves are to be expected from two companies that are essentially at war, but it’s the average user that has to take the extra steps to upload his or her Gmail contacts into Facebook to get started that is really impacted. It’s about the millions of users that won’t get the benefits of Facebook integration in Google or Gmail. It’s about a war that is only going to get uglier.

In a few years, the lines will be drawn between Facebook and its allies and Google (and whoever is willing to join it). Digital walls to data portability will go up if companies are forced to choose sides. If things keep going in the direction they are headed now, that is the likely outcome.

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