Mike Isaac

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Facebook’s Platform Policy Explanation Only Raises More Questions

vine_facebookFacebook is hard to read.

On the one hand, Mark Zuckerberg’s key line is, “making the world a more open and connected place.” And then we take a look back on the recent past and see a history of what seems to be the exact opposite behavior.

In the past few months, Facebook has cut ties with Voxer, snipped its Instagram functionality with Twitter, immediately cut friend-finding access to Vine, and shut down Yandex’s new social discovery app, Wonder. And that’s just the stuff that has blown up in the news.

I’ve been trying to get Facebook to talk a bit more about its seemingly schizo-effective pattern of enforcing its platform policies; to date, the company has been pretty elusive. Facebook seems to have answered that call on Friday, publishing an update to its developer blog to clarify its platform policies. The key takeaway is the following addendum, excerpted below:

Reciprocity and Replicating core functionality: (a) Reciprocity: Facebook Platform enables developers to build personalized, social experiences via the Graph API and related APIs. If you use any Facebook APIs to build personalized or social experiences, you must also enable people to easily share their experiences back with people on Facebook. (b) Replicating core functionality: You may not use Facebook Platform to promote, or to export user data to, a product or service that replicates a core Facebook product or service without our permission.

Let’s parse that. First, Facebook is totally cool with you using its data to build out your app or business. But Facebook isn’t just one big ball of altruistic joy — if you’re building atop the Facebook platform, Facebook wants a return on its data “investment,” if you will.

What that means: Your user activity should be shareable back to Facebook. (And make it look pretty, while you’re at it.)

Second, and perhaps more important, is the clause about replicating “core” Facebook functionality. Essentially, if you’re a service that steps on Facebook’s toes and what the company is trying to do — and importantly, uses Facebook data to do it — you’re in trouble.

That’s most likely where Voxer got caught up. Take a look at Voxer, the mobile communications service, and see how it correlates with the recent changes in Facebook’s Messenger app — voice, text, calls and the like. Yikes.

It’s possibly the same for Yandex’s new social discovery application, Wonder. It was dangerous territory for Yandex, as the app essentially used Facebook data and translated it into a better mobile discovery experience. And many signs point to Facebook wanting to do the same thing — at least at some point down the line.

Here’s where I have a problem with Facebook’s “core functionality” argument: Voxer and Facebook existed fairly harmoniously — or so we’ve been told by Voxer — for some time. Yet Facebook snipped Voxer’s access after Facebook’s Messenger product began to evolve into what it is today — voice, text and calling.

So what does that mean for a startup building on the platform? Facebook may not be dabbling in your space today, but if the company decides to stomp into your territory, do you face the risk of being cut off? That doesn’t bode well for a company looking to build a future on top of the Facebook platform.

As for Facebook cutting off Vine, well, the policy update doesn’t really address that issue. It’s pretty obvious that it was an anticompetitive move against a Twitter-owned product. And, honestly, it’s retribution for Twitter’s similar actions against Facebook in the past. I don’t think either company has its hands clean in these particular cases.

But, outside of Twitter — which I doubt will ever play nice-nice with Facebook — the question lingers for other startups: What is “core” Facebook product and functionality? How do you know if your product is replicating it? And, if not today, how do you know if your product won’t replicate it tomorrow, when Facebook decides to move into a new product area?

Like I said — platform policy update or no, Facebook is one tough company to read.

Hopefully, developers can read between the lines.

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