The Scoble mess and data portability

by Mathew on January 4, 2008 · 13 comments

So Robert Scoble has his account suspended by Facebook for using an automated script to harvest his contacts and their email addresses (see my previous post), and all hell breaks loose. Scoble, whose account is later reinstated, is denounced for being a publicity-seeking limelight hog, and for using a script from Plaxo that is an egregious breach of Facebook’s terms of use (since it uses optical character recognition to grab email addresses, which the site keeps as image files). The end of the world? Hardly, as Mark Hopkins at Mashable points out.

In any case, some have sided with Scoble, because they feel Facebook should allow users to export their data, while others argue that the site can do whatever it wants, and when you sign the terms of use you effectively agree that you accept that. Whatever you think of Scoble and Plaxo’s script, however (which seems a little devious to me), there is an important issue at the centre of this Techmeme frenzy, as Scott Karp at Publishing 2.0 and others have pointed out: Who owns your data?

In a post I came across this morning, Paul Buchheit (the guy who created Gmail) makes an interesting point, which is that many other services — including Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail and LinkedIn — allow you to import your addresses from some other program or service. I just finished doing exactly that with, and I’ve done it with countless other services as well, including (most recently) an aggregator called Spokeo.

So how come you can do that with every service except Facebook? That doesn’t seem right. The Data Portability Group has extended an invitation to the site to join their push for a single standard. Marc Canter thinks we need better access controls for our data, and Chris “Factory Joe” Messina thinks that we need to move away from using our email addresses as the core of our online identities, and move towards a URL-based system. One thing is for sure: this issue isn’t going to go away.

  • ianbetteridge

    “So how come you can do that with every service except Facebook? That doesn’t seem right.”

    It's interesting, though, that people are beginning to see the downsides of doing this. For example, take the pain and suffering that people who allowed Quechup to use their address books have suffered (see… for my own example).

    As more and more “social network” services crop up which abuse this kind of openness, I suspect that closed networks will actually come back into vogue, as people seek to keep their data under wraps.

  • mathewi

    There's no question there's a downside to doing it, Ian — and Quechup
    and Plaxo are both good examples of that. But aren't there downsides
    to social networks as a whole, not to mention the Internet itself? I
    for one hope that people don't throw the baby out with the bathwater
    and decide that all sharing of such data is bad, or turn the Web into
    a series of walled, private gardens.

  • Jimmy

    I agree, I also side with Scoble on this. I had a take on it in a post I had last night. I thought about it all day. But basically, in using these social networks, we are making an investment. We invest our time and efforts to get some return. It is not fair for someone to be able to take our “nestegg” and delete it. We are not speculating on stocks here, that is a risk. Anyway, great post and check out mine if you have a second.



  • mathewi

    Thanks for the comment, Jimmy. Good post.

  • Mark Evans

    A good example of how a company with data is building its ecosystem by allowing partners to scrap is, which provides people with another way to look at eBay.

  • antje

    Still just seems a big difference in allowing you, as my friend, to move my data to your email client, which I would have no problem with, but to Plaxo (or a worse)- I would definitely have a problem with that. I wouldn't know how delineate the intentions of the user, but it would seem that companies need to be cognizant of this. Plaxo's intentions seem to be to want to do something with that data (my contact info), whereas an email client it seems more a tool of practicality for the user, not the company (email client company).

  • Corvida

    Great article Matt, but I must say that…I'm not with Scoble on this issue. But it is kind of ironic that Facebook wouldn't allow you to scrape it, but it will scrape other services to benefit it's service.

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  • net1492

    Mathew I agree, Gmail, etc. allow you to import your address book, do your friends really think you will not import there email addresses into whichever email system turned social network you like at the moment . Just did a quick check and Orkut which is part of Google seems to be able to find people I know even though I haven't upload my address book to Orkut. Not that this is an in depth review of Orkut I think people are deluding themselves if they think they can control there email address at a minimum..

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  • jay

    nice point Mathew and I do agree!!!!

  • jay

    nice point Mathew and I do agree!!!!

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