Facebook Issues: Who Owns Your Data?

Over the last few days there's been a lot of discussion on the 'net on the topic of data portability among social networking sites. It all started when blogger Robert Scoble got his Facebook account suspended for violating Facebook's Terms of Service (ToS). He was running a script (which was the violation) from Plaxo that goes to all your friends' profile pages and collects (scrapes) their contact information from them (i.e. the pages). [He's since been let back in.]

There are a couple of issues here: (1) who owns your contact data, which is the bigger issue and (2) how you are allowed to access it, which is the more immediate issue.

The data ownership issue isn't very clear since you can argue it in different ways and can come up with different, but still reasonable and logical, conclusions. eWeek's Clint Boulton talks about that in more detail in his recent article, 'Who Owns Your Social Data? You Do, Sort of':

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."

I don't quite agree with Owyang since people probably wouldn't be upset if, for example, I was to copy their e-mail address from Facebook and store it in my mobile phone's address book (which is about as portable as Plaxo's address book is). But, like I said, there are lots of sides to the story.

And then there's the second issue which, for the moment, is more contentious. That's because, while Facebook itself runs an automated script to scrape your contact data from other social media and e-mail sites -- that is, it has a script that will automatically import your data -- it doesn't let you do that the other way round -- that is, it doesn't let you run a script to export your data (to other social media and e-mail sites). And that, people argue, is unfair.

But the thing is: it is Facebook's platform and they can do with it whatever they want. Unless Facebook signs on to Google's Open Social or to the Data Portability project, it has no obligation to make it easy for you to export your data. By the way, doing this is called locking users in since this policy makes it difficult for users to switch to a different service or vendor.

The End of Lock-In?

Dave Winer over at Scripting News argues that this lock-in policy won't last very long in the social media space:

... These companies don't want to empower the users, but if they studied history, they'd see that the evolution of computers always comes in fits and starts. A period when the technology is new and people are snowed by the companies and let them have full control. Gradually people understand what's going on, and figure out they're being screwed but they accept it. And then explosively the whole thing disintegrates in a new layer of technology.

It's a big effin loop we're in. One of these times around one of the companies that feels (incorrectly) that they have a lock on their users, will voluntarily give it up and be a leader in Generation N+1. I've never seen it happen, but in theory I think it could.

And he's right. Remember the days when you couldn't transfer your e-mails or your address book between e-mail clients? Or when you couldn't export your browser bookmarks to another browser? Or when you couldn't export the news feeds you subscribe to into an XML file and, therefore, couldn't easily switch news readers? Or when you couldn't export your blog data to a different blogging software package or service? In this day and age, data portability and interoperability are key.

As Winer says at the end of his post:

So Facebook has the opportunity to be a crossover company, part of the next generation -- or a last gasp of the generation that's about to run out of gas. It's their choice.

But will it be Facebook that Crosses Over?

Grant Robertson from Download Squad, meanwhile, argues that Facebook will never let you export your data:

... The simple fact is, as the market leader, there is no benefit for or strategic advantage in Facebook making your data available to you in any format you wish. Those are young company ideals; the things you do in the beginning when you're desperate for users.

Open access to data is like the starched shirt, expensive cologne and bouquet of roses you take on a first date; it's a courting display, not a permanent way of life.

Facebook won't offer you open access to your data for one simple reason; if they did, they couldn't compete. They aren't innovative, they aren't the first mover, and they don't have a stable of hot talent designing any "next generation" of the social web. Facebook is simply a company that was in the right place at the right time, with a lucky strategy which happened to work.

In his opinion, it won't be Facebook that "opens up" your data:

So, whatever side of the debate you find yourself falling on, remember this. If the data wars truly have begun, victory won't come in the form of an "open" Facebook; it will come from a new generation of services who fail to find an exit strategy from their own courting ritual.

I guess we'll just have to wait and see which side of the fence Facebook falls on.

As for myself, I try to rely of Facebook as little as possible because I tend to agree with Robertson: Facebook will not give me easy access to my data to with as I please. At least not in the short term. As a result, I try to minimize my serious conversations and discussions (i.e. the kind I'd want to archive and maybe refer to later) on Facebook. In fact, whenever possible, I try to e-mail people so, at the very least, I have a way of contacting them outside of the Facebook platform.

That said, I am hopeful that, over the next year, things will change and that social media user data will become a lot more portable and/or a lot more interoperable. Here's hoping.