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.

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