Facebook reinstates tech blogger, but debate goes on

Incident likely to set off a data ownership war on the Web

Technology blogger Robert Scoble's Facebook account was reinstated Thursday, just hours after the social network kicked him off the site for running an application to import his contacts from the popular social network.

The incident kicked off a raging debate about who owns the content that a user builds up on a social network. Scoble was testing a new feature of Plaxo's Pulse social network that allows users to import Facebook contact information, including names, emails and birthdays to Plaxo.

In a note from Facebook's customer service operation posted on Scoble's blog, the social networking firm asks him not to run automated scripts again. Facebook had said in a previous note to Scoble that such activity violates its service agreement because automated scripts can "commit malicious acts, send spam and generally try to undermine the integrity of the site. Since you contacted us and have agreed not to run the script again, we have reactivated your account."

Prominent IT author and blogger Nick Carr noted that the information Scoble "scraped" from Facebook included names, email addresses and birthdays of more than 5,000 "friends" of Scoble.

"The act of 'friending' on a social network site, it's important to remember, is a fairly cavalier act, often undertaken with little thought," Carr wrote on his blog. "Now, if you happen to be one of those 'friends,' would you think of your name, email address, and birthday as being 'Scoble's data' or as being 'my data'? If you're smart, you'll think of it as being 'my data,' and you'll be very nervous about the ability of someone to easily suck it out of Facebook's database and move it into another database without your knowledge or permission."

While Carr noted that Scoble likely had only benign intentions -- testing the Plaxo application -- others users of similar scraping script may have more malice in mind.

"Facebook has an obligation to protect the data entrusted to it by its members," according to Carr. "At the very least, members should have the right to decide whether or not their personal information can be scraped out of the Facebook database. Scoble did not give them that choice."

Still, he noted that Facebook itself scrapes information for its own commercial purposes and block others from doing so.

Scott Karp, a blogger at Publishing 2.0, noted that the Scoble incident is likely to set off a data ownership war on the Web.

"I think it's unlikely we will see the cycle end any time soon - with the disintegration of distribution monopolies, the new power in media is in the data," Karp wrote. "That's how Facebook got its US$15 billion valuation - the potential to exploit its users' data."

Noted technology blogger Dave Winer added that if Facebook doesn't set up a system to designate what users can access what information, that system will have to be created by some entity.

"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 then explosively the whole thing disintegrates in a new layer of technology."

But, he added, the company that gives up its lock on its users data could become a leader in the market, he added.

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Heather Havenstein

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