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.

About the author

Mathew 2430 posts

I'm a Toronto-based senior writer with Fortune magazine, and my favorite things to write about are social technology, media and the evolution of online behavior

23 Responses to “Facebook: Whose data is it anyway?”
  1. 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.

  2. […] as Mathew Ingram puts it: whose data is it anyway? The big question here — which the Scobleizer has cleverly put himself at the centre of — is: […]

  3. Right on. Write on, Matthew!

    And Happy New Year…
    Penn Kemp

  4. […] Matthew Ingram: The big question here — which the Scobleizer has cleverly put himself at the centre of […]

  5. […] Matthew Ingram: The big question here — which the Scobleizer has cleverly put himself at the centre of […]

  6. […] 3, 2008 Today the net is abuzz with Robert Scobles recent block from facebook after he tried to pull down the data of […]

  7. @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!

  8. 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…

  9. […] Kara Swisher to Mathew Ingram to Robert’s own post that started it all, the story was that Robert had knowingly run an […]

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. […] follow up post on data privacy –And Nick Carr’s and Kara Swisher’s — and Mathew Ingram’s — and Dare’s. Central question we’re all asking-who’s data is it anyway? […]

  14. 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?

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

  16. […] portability is an issue being discussed by many, related to the Facebook-Scoble debate. As Mathew Ingram puts it, the main question here is: Who does that data belong to? It might have been collected and […]

  17. […] Robert Scoble has a post up that seems to argue that Facebook is right and Mike is wrong — a debate that continues in the comments on Arrington’s post — but to be honest I lost track of what Scoble’s argument actually was somewhere in there. To me it seems obvious that I should have the ability to move data that is attached to my profile (photos, phone numbers, addresses, emails, etc.) to some other site — in a way that didn’t involve screen-scraping. […]

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