As I am writing this May 31 2010 has just passed and over 25,000 people (probably) quit Facebook in protest over its double standards and violation of basic users’ privacy rights. The “Quit Facebook” group nominated Monday 31st May as the day users should ditch their account, demanding that the web be an “open, safe and human place.”

Facebook this month issued new security measures which will make it simpler for users to boost their privacy safeguards, but they will have to opt out of default policies by which much of their data becomes publicly available. With over 500 million users worldwide data and privacy have become the new battleground and for good reason.

In order to rival Google Facebook really needs to create a corralled web where data is available to it and can then be monetized in terms of serving ads from paying customers. The catch is that in order to out-Google, Google, Facebook has to build a search engine and search engines, as Microsoft’s numerous failed and very expensive attempts have shown, are notoriously difficult to build.

Facebook, of course, has an advantage in that within its corral walls pages should be easier to crawl not least because they are easier to mark up. In order to achieve this Facebook launched an initiative called ‘The Open Graph Protocol’ which according to Facebook was intended “... to integrate your web pages into the social graph. It is currently designed for web pages representing profiles of real-world things — things like movies, sports teams, celebrities, and restaurants.”

In other words this was Facebook’s first salvo in building its own ‘Facebook web’ where only ‘nice people came out to play’ and where data and information followed a nice, orderly flow and was indexed by the first, major initiative to use elements of the Semantic Web.

The reality is a little less pretty and a little less noble. It would appear that while Facebook paid lip service to the semantic web its partners and itself did not really bother to mark up anything at all and the issues with its protocol are:

  1. The Open Graph Protocol does not support object disambiguation (vital to sensitive search)
  2. The Open Graph Protocol does not support multiple objects on the page
  3. The Launch partners have not implemented Open Graph Protocol correctly on their sites (so much for the publicity)
  4. Facebook does not have the markup on its own pages that it asks the world to adopt
  5. A growing amount of user profile data is full of duplicates and ambiguity (which will lead to poor search results)

If that was all perhaps I could attribute it to corporate inertia (after all the sheer size of Facebook must be daunting) but something a little more sinister came to my attention: The Like button which the Open Graph Protocol was supposed to feed on works correctly on Facebook partners IMDB, Yelp and Pandora not because they have implemented the Protocol (as of January 1st they hadn’t) but because Facebook, in a cynical PR move, hard-coded their pages to show up correctly.

What does the Facebook hard-coding of poorly marked up pages mean?

On the web transparency, openness and equality are important. Google has made a name for itself because its results are organic and cannot be bought, no matter who you are. It has become the world’ de facto search engine of choice because it delivers honest, relevant results fast.

Facebook tries to portray itself as the softer, nicer cousin of Google and wants us all to be within its walls but fails to follow what it preaches and games results for its own purposes. This apparent duplicity undermines my trust in it and its willingness to deliver a web which is truly open and balanced. Does that mean we should abandon it?

If you are not working online then you have the luxury of leaving Facebook and staying on the moral high ground (if you really want to). If you are marketing a business or a product then the fact that you will be turning your back to a unified market that’s currently 500 million strong is a little idiotic, at best. For you, as for me, staying in Facebook is a necessity with the option to leave if things truly become untenable.