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Facebook Opens Up to OpenID

Facebook users can now log in to the website using their Gmail accounts, the company announced Monday.

The social network has become an OpenID relying party, following through on a promise it made at a developer event last month. Starting Monday afternoon, Facebook will support login credentials supplied by any OpenID provider that supports “automatic login.”

So, for example, if you’re already logged in to Gmail when you visit Facebook.com, you’ll be given the option to automatically log in to your Facebook account with one click.

Accounts for Google services, like Gmail, as well as providers like OpenID.net, can be used to sign in to Facebook. MySpace, Yahoo and AOL credentials cannot be used, as those companies currently don’t support the automatic login method Facebook is implementing.

Regular Facebook users now have a more secure way of logging in to the site (one less username and password to remember), but the bigger win is what this change will mean for new user adoption.

For Gmail users, the process of “finding friends” is effectively over.

When a new user logs in to Facebook using their Gmail address, the system is able to kick start the networking experience for them. You have a tremendous amount of friend data stored in your Gmail account in the form of your friends’ names and e-mail addresses.

When you authenticate, Google tells you what data Facebook is requesting. See the screenshot above and you’ll see “Google Contacts” on the list. So, after you authenticate, Facebook gains the permission it needs to tap into that list of contacts, find out which of your friends are using Facebook and suggest that you connect with them.

In a statement on the Facebook developer blog, engineer Luke Shepard says:

In tests we’ve run, we’ve noticed that first-time users who register on the site with OpenID are more likely to become active Facebook users. They get up and running after registering even faster than before, find their friends easily, and quickly engage on the site.

It may seem odd that Facebook is being so forward thinking about supporting a portable data standard like OpenID, especially given the company’s history of clamping down on sharing users’ activity data outside of its network in the name of privacy. But this is the kind of data sharing that works in Facebook’s advantage — it eases adoption, simplifies the process of building networks, and increases activity on Facebook.

Furthermore, Facebook has been forward-thinking about ID in general, both with the launch of Facebook Connect and its involvement in the OpenID Foundation. The company’s dedication to making authentication as simple as possible is evidenced by its requirement that an OpenID provider must support “automatic login” — Facebook wants the login experience to meet a very high standard of usability, and only providers who support immediate authentication will be able to play along.

Hopefully, Facebook’s high expectations are a driving force within the industry, and that Monday’s move pushes other OpenID providers to improve their implementations of the emerging standard.