Thinking about Plaxo Pulse, Scoble and privacy

Now Robert Scoble created quite a discussion. First he got kicked off Facebook because he was using some script on it about which he couldn’t talk about. Apparently he wanted to export his contacts to use them elsewhere. Later he revealed that it was an unreleased version of Plaxo Pulse, a tool for exporting and syncing contacts from various sites. He says that it collected names and email addresses and birthdays. This though is against the Terms of Service of Facebook and thus they shut him down (automatically actually because there are some tools in place to check for strange access patterns it seems).

As a result also all of his information was removed from Facebook.

Now this raised quite some questions:

  • Who owns this data on social networks? Who owns one contacts and relationships? Is it ok for a Social Network to forbid the export of this data via the TOS?
  • If it would be allowed to export it what does that mean for the people you have in your contact list? They might not want to be exported to other sites. And actually for Facebook they trusted the platform that this is not possible.
  • What does that mean regarding the claim of Facebook that they cannot delete your data if you ask them to. Of course this is a silly argument because we all know that there is no way to not be able to delete all that data technically. And in fact Robert Scoble’s data got all removed from the site in the process. So is the only way to get removed from it to run strange scripts? This actually comes again down to the question of who owns data on social networks. I would really like to own my data and also be sure that I can remove it at any time I wish to do so.

All these questions are especially interesting in all the discussion going on late last year and probably very much this year about opening up social network. There is a big demand on being able to easier join new social networks which means that you should be able to e.g. just point the new site to an existing site to import or sync your contacts. This is mostly the same as is down these days by importing your GMail address book (although that is very scary and you NEVER should give out your password). But here the question kicks in, if this is ok with all your contacts to do so.

The question is also if people would have reacted differently if Facebook would have been more open from the beginning and it was clear that data can be exported. Would this have stopped people from putting too much stuff on Facebook? Would it have stopped people from signing up at all?

This whole discussion actually is also not only relevant to social networks but to the whole internet maybe. What about all these sites collecting data from you on the web? Is this ok? The same happens actually in Second Life. Some products collect avatar data and put them in relationship to other data as e.g. your IP address and thus your geolocation. Is this ok? They usually say that they only use already available data and that’s the same Scoble says in one of his comments. But is it really true that people can do everything they want with my data just because they have access to it?

I think it’s very much an ethical question and a lot of discussion needs to take place to find the right way of doing this. Of course some sites will still not play to the rules then but if the big players do I think that’s already ok. For me it’s important in any case to have more access to my data and maybe to data of others if they give permission.

And as for Robert Scoble, he got re-enabled again on Facebook but he also joined the DataPortability Working Group now and they in turn invited Facebook to join, too. We will see what comes out of this.

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