Why API providers lie about email lookups

Gardengate
Photo by Country Girl at Heart

There are some defensible reasons for not allowing developers to look up users by email addresses, but claiming that spammers will use that facility to validate email addresses is pretty weak. I was reminded of this today when I added MySpace to the services supported by FindByEmail, and came across LinkedIn using the same old justification for not opening up their API. Twitter made the same claims when they pulled their existing API.

On the surface it sounds completely reasonable, but that horse is not only out of the barn, it's been galloping so long it's over the horizon. For years, Yahoo, Amazon, MySpace and AIM have all let developers look up their users by email address, so any spammer who wanted to go that route has had plenty of opportunity.

The real reason is that companies benefit from having their users inside walled gardens, and anything that makes it easier to integrate across sites is a threat to their business model. You might notice the more open companies are those in second place, who have less to lose. This leads to ridiculous situations, like Google refusing to open up a proper Gmail API so that migration to other services is harder, and then paying TrueSwitch to enable migration from other ISPs. TrueSwitch is the de facto proprietary API that all the big ISPs use to help users switch, a market opportunity that wouldn't even exist if they just opened up access to each other, and a situation that favors big-pocketed incumbents who can afford to hire them.

As you can probably tell, I've never met a data silo I liked. I'm just an external trouble-maker who doesn't have responsibility for protecting sensitive user information, but I'm going to scream if I hear another developer relations guy claim that their business decision to keep their users in a wall garden is all about keeping them safe!

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