Who Owns Your Social Data? You Do, Sort of

Analysis: Scoble's banishment and reinstatement from Facebook revives the debate over who owns data entered on social sites.

When Facebook kicked blogger Robert Scoble off of Facebook Jan. 3, it revived the great debate over data portability. Who owns the data on a social network? You or the site?

Scoble himself during a videocast admitted he broke Facebook's terms of use agreement by using a Plaxo script to pull names and addresses from Facebook to sync with his Plaxo account. Those terms explicitly state users must not "harvest or collect e-mail addresses or other contact information of other users."

The mea culpa didn't matter. Hundreds of bloggers flamed Facebook or at least used the opportunity, not knowing at the time it was a case of an automated script thwarting an automated script, to emphasize the need to be able to pull data from Facebook and use it across multiple social networks.

The notion seems not only innocent enough but a no-brainer in an age when people want to make managing their information easier online; users don't want to have to repeatedly enter the same data from Facebook to LinkedIn to Plaxo, etc.

"The idea for people to move their social graph from one service to another is a fabulous benefit," Wikia co-founder Jimmy Wales told eWEEK Jan. 3. "To me, it's a benefit to customers. People should be very wary about services that are uptight about that kind of thing in an effort to lock you out of the customer."

The problem is that while the profile data may be yours and yours alone, your address book contains the names and e-mail addresses of your friends, family and business contacts. The Plaxo script Scoble used scraped that contact information from Facebook without its users' permission.


Read here about Scoble rejoining Facebook.

There are obvious privacy issues with this, and this is the reason Facebook prevents data sharing across sites.

It's the technical and philosophical equivalent of a social contract; you wouldn't share your hard-copy address book with a network of strangers, would you? It would be bad form.

As the platform provider, Facebook is trying to avoid these risks. If Facebook's servers didn't catch the script, it would have been enabling Scoble to compromise its terms of use and its users' privacy.

Forrester Research analyst Jeremiah Owyang said the issue is a sticky one because according to the terms of use, Facebook owns the data, but many people detest that control.

"Robert is breaking the terms of service, but it's also unclear if he owns those e-mail addresses," Owyang told eWEEK Jan. 3. "People said, 'Yes, you can be my friend,' but they never said, 'Robert, you can take my e-mail address and use it elsewhere.' Some people might feel like that social contract was broken by Robert and Plaxo."

While it is the dicey nature of the social contract that has Facebook afraid to relinquish control, some vendors are taking the leap. Google created APIs in OpenSocial that let users share data across sites. Wales told eWEEK Wikia is very interested in joining OpenSocial.

Plaxo's Pulse service, the root of the script that triggered the Scoble banishment, aggregates contact information from multiple accounts, including Microsoft Hotmail, Yahoo Webmail and Gmail.

What troubles Plaxo Chief Platform Architect Joseph Smarr is that, like Plaxo, Facebook screen scrapes the same data from Gmail, Hotmail and other places "a zillion times a day," he said.


To read more about Facebook's privacy snafu, click here.

Like Wales, Smarr said letting people pull data from one site to another is an obvious benefit of the social Web today. Facebook chooses not to observe it.

"They've been particularly closed about letting their users access that they themselves enjoy great benefit from getting from other sites," Smarr told Eweek Jan. 3.

Regardless of how Wales, Smarr, Owyang and others may feel, the bottom line is that Facebook sets the terms of use. While CEO Mark Zuckerberg may call the data ours, Facebook still controls what you can and can't do with it, so is it really ours?

Before he was reinstated after Facebook's humans learned that the company's servers had kicked him off, Scoble joined the DataPortability.org movement Jan. 3 as a recourse for trying to get his data back.

It is not clear how much teeth this effort has, but its heart is in the right place. Social network standards that will make data portable and keep it private are important for 2008.