Facebook: Whose data is it anyway?

by Mathew on January 3, 2008 · 23 comments

In his post about Facebook disabling his account, uber-blogger and Facebook tart Robert Scoble admits that he was doing something that breached the site’s terms of use — specifically, he was running a script that accessed the social network and “scraped” data from it. As a result, he got a letter from a Facebook minion telling him that his account had been disabled, asking him to describe his recent activity, and asking him to refrain from any such activity in the future.

(Scoble was apparently trying out a new Plaxo import feature that involves screen-scraping, according to this post from Mike Arrington at TechCrunch. I agree with Mike that Plaxo is to blame here just as much as Facebook).

It’s obvious why Facebook would have such a rule: scraping data using automatic scripts not only puts a load on the site’s servers, but gives potential competitors the ability to potentially suck out the entrails of the social network and move them somewhere else. The interesting part of this whole affair, of course, is that the entrails in question — the engine that makes Facebook such a hot property — are the contacts and information belonging to people like Scoble.

The big question here — which the Scobleizer has cleverly put himself at the centre of — is: Who does that data belong to? It might have been collected and organized in the way it has because of Facebook’s tools, and he obviously agreed to the terms of use that he has since broken, but there’s no question that the information itself should belong to Scoble (and the rest of us). So what rights should he have when it comes to removing that data from a site like Facebook? And who gets to decide?

The bottom line, I think, is that Facebook should make it easier for people to move their data from Facebook to somewhere else without scraping the site using bot-scripts. Whether Scoble’s symbolic gesture will help to push them in that direction remains to be seen.

Update: As Ian Betteridge points out in a comment here, at least some of the data that the Scobleizer is scraping belongs to the 5,000 or so people who added him as a friend. Should they have a say in what he does with it?

And now Scoble has been reinstated by Facebook, and has gotten lots of publicity for himself and Plaxo — but hopefully he has also gotten people thinking about who owns our data, and how we use it.

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk ianbetteridge

    Well, the interesting point is that, whoever the data that Robert is scraping belongs to, it isn't him. Either it belongs to Facebook (as users have “given” it to the site), or to the individuals who provided it.

    More succinctly: When I “friend” someone on Facebook, am I giving them implicit permission to take the data I allow them access to and port it elsewhere? Or am I just giving them the right to access it via Facebook? If it's the latter, then Robert was in the wrong.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    That's a good point, Ian — I suppose the 5,000 members of FOS
    (friends of Scoble) could argue that it's their data. Does that mean
    he shouldn't have taken it? I think they effectively gave it to him
    when they added him as a friend. In any case, I think he has at least
    as much right to it as Facebook does.

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  • Penn Kemp

    Right on. Write on, Matthew!

    And Happy New Year…
    Penn Kemp

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk ianbetteridge

    Facebook clearly has the right to do with my data whatever I've agreed to in the ToS (and if I don't want it to do so, I shouldn't use the service – but that's another issue). Robert clearly has the right to access my data using Facebook. But does he have the right to take that data and use it elsewhere without my further consent?

    For things like phone numbers, email address, and so on I suspect most people would say “yes”. It makes sense that if I allow Robert to know what my email address is, then he can put it anywhere – in his Mac's Address Book, in Plaxo (although some would object to that), and so on. But Facebook doesn't just deal in contact information. Does Robert have the right to port my wall posts, my iLike preferences, or my saved items? Can he take the photos I've allowed him access to and use them elsewhere? The answers are less clear about these kinds of social data.

    Isn't this analogous in some ways to the Google Reader Shared Items blogstorm, in that – if Facebook were to suddenly allow data scraping when it previously hasn't – it would be changing the way in which data it has been trusted with is being allowed to be used?

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  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    A fair point, Ian. I don't know enough about what Scoble has scraped
    – is it just names and addresses and email addresses, or is it other
    preferences and photos?

  • http://www.thisisgoingtobebig.com Charlie

    @ianbetteridge Totally agree… in fact, posted about it: http://www.thisisgoingtobebig.com/2008/01/you-d… Friendship data belongs to two people and others trusted the TOS to put it up there. Spot on!

  • Jope

    I'm fascinated by all this… Surely Scoble and everyone on FB pressed 'ok' to the button asking to confirm the Terms of Service when joining FB, no?

    So what's all the fuss about? Move to another social site, or create a new, more open one. But if he did something against the ToS, he got caught, tough luck…

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  • http://www.technovia.co.uk ianbetteridge

    Apprently name, email address and DOB, which makes many of the points above moot (although interesting hypothetical questions).

    I think the point we have to ask is what the expectations are of users who friend someone. You clearly expect them to have access to whatever data you make available to them through Facebook. You don't, though, expect them to take that data wholesale and sell it to a spammer. So while friending someone is saying “you can use this information”, it's not saying “you can use this information in any way you see fit”. That would be ABusing the information.

    The question is whether Scoble's scraping of friends data and porting it into Plaxo is using, or abusing. For some people (me included) it's fine. For others, though, particularly those hostile to Plaxo (and there are a few around), it would be abusing it.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I agree, Ian — although there's a pretty big difference between
    taking that data and selling it to a spammer and importing it into
    Plaxo. Despite Plaxo's failings, I don't think importing data into it
    is much different from importing it into GMail or any other contact
    manager. But I agree there are questions there that remain to be
    answered.

  • Jose

    Why is this even a story? People get bounced from Facebook and reinstated everyday. Just because it's a self-important twit like Scoble (“I run these things so you don't have to…”) — who is openly violating the TOS to boot — the entire blogosphere has to go nuts? Use the bloody site for what it's intended, if you don't like it then leave and/or build your own network.

  • http://www.makeyougohmm.com/ TDavid

    If you have to scrape it (and OCR the email addys) without permission that's a pretty good sign it's not kosher activity. Add that to Scoble's history of violating the TOS because he disagrees with things and I'm surprised that's not a bigger part of the coverage here.

    Yes, more data portability would be great, but I'm seriously questioning the tactics employed in this case.

  • michaelocc

    A hearty “hear hear” Mathew, for picking up on the key question at the heart of this little kerfuffle – whose data is it? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

    I've been fretting and gnashing my teeth about this particular issue for a while now (see here foe example: http://snipurl.com/1vjwn). One of the worrying, unresolved issues in the whole social media space is the grey and fuzzy area of business models predicated on mining other people's info. This is not an issue unique to Facebook, btw – and they're certainly not the most blatant of the YASNS providers out there.

    I'll spare you the full, rambling thesis here, but in short – User Generated Content makes money; just not necessarily for the user themselves. Build a popular social network and get enough punters to participate willingly (signing up to a ToS they probably didn't even read that gives you the right to do whatever they will with your contributed data), and you can build yourself a nice little revenue machine.

    I wrote about this recently both on the blog and in a mailing list I'm subscribed to.

    One of the responses I received compared the wonders of the UGC space to the pyramids:

    “It seems to me that the social network buildup is similar to the great wonders of the world (bear with me)…Just as the pharaohs were not the ones who actually built the pyramids, the network owners are not the ones building the primary substance of the networks. And yet, the pharaohs are the ones who get the credit and majority of the reward much like the owners get the credit and the reward.”

    OK, so that's a bit of a stretch, perhaps, but it's an entertaining conceit.

    So – what's most worrying in the ToS violation is not what Robert was doing that broke FB's rules, but the rules themselves – and the fact that we're all blithely accepting such rules of data ownership without giving them too much extra thought.

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  • paul smith

    God you are such a Techcrunch wannabe writer. You think the Sun shines out of Arrington's ar$e.

    “according to this post from Mike Arrington at TechCrunch. I agree with Mike that Plaxo is to blame here just as much as Facebook.”

    Plaxo is not to blame. FB needs to be made open. Try out Facebook Sync on the Mac this works with my address book.

    Although I do agree with Ian Betteridge. What if Scoble wanted to take “his” social graph/data and import it onto Hustler.com without your permission but you were listed as one of his 5000 friends? What if Hustler then started sending you pornographic messages. Whose data would it be then?

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Paul, if you don't like the blog, feel free to take your readership
    and your comments elsewhere.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Paul, if you don't like the blog, feel free to take your readership
    and your comments elsewhere.

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