privacySo email’s becoming obsolete, huh?

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said as much last June. And of course, everyone knows younger users don’t even use email anymore. (Let’s just ignore the fact that you can’t open a Facebook account without an email address).

Now, Facebook’s set to announce Project Titan on Monday, which is almost universally expected to be an unveiling of Facebook’s “Gmail killer” email service.

The two companies have been firing shots across one another’s bow’s all week. Google lags behind in social networking. And while Facebook does messaging, it doesn’t do email. Both have drawn a pretty serious bead on the other company’s turf.

The most recent contretemps between Google and Facebook is in regard to importing and exporting Gmail contact lists into Facebook. “Hold on a second,” Google has started warning users trying to do just that, “Are you super sure you want to import your contact information for your friends into a service that won’t let you get it out?”

This, while committing hundreds of millions of dollars to employee bonuses and an across the board 10% raise to keep Googlers from defecting to what’s clearly becoming a formidible competitor. Speaking of competition, it’s rumored Facebook will team with Microsoft to pull this off (the two already partnered earlier this year on Docs.com, aimed squarely at another Google offering). Microsoft could clearly help make FacebookMail (for lack of a working title) POP and IMAP accessible, as well as potentially searchable.

If Facebook does team with Microsoft to launch an email service, it’s only the latest salvo in what’s becoming a kaiju epic. Forget Godzilla vs. Mechgodzilla. We’ve now got Facebook + Microsoft vs. Google (email and docs); Microsoft + Yahoo vs. Google (search); Facebook vs. Foursquare (Places); Apple kind of admitting defeat with Ping by integrating the service with Twitter – oh, and Google shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars to keep its employees from decamping to any of the aforementioned rivals.

Especially Facebook.

It’s about the privacy

As the titans clash, it’s important not to lose sight of the real issues here. They all center arouond user data and user privacy. Unlike much of what transpires on a social network (which is, after all, social), email is private communication. If Facebook does indeed offer its members email, they’ll know where they shop, what they bought, what their travel plans are, as well as have access to new levels of information about their work, friends, activities, penchants and contacts.

The information will be personal as well as personally-identifiable, and you can bet they’ll monetize it with advertising.

The real question is how well Facebook will understand, and consistently respect, the fact that email’s email, i.e. it tends to be a lot more private than social. The key word here, of course, is “consistent,” a word that can hardly be applied to Facebook’s spotty-verging-on-capricious privacy practices of late. To pull this off, Facebook needs a rock-solid and unwavering policy to protect its users’ data, and by extension, their privacy.

Whoever gets the most user data wins. Let’s just hope and pray the winner is the company with the most bulletproof privacy policy.

Image: opensourceway