Depending on your viewpoint, Robert Scoble’s suspension from Facebook for violating its terms of service could be either a storm in a (blog)cup, or the final proof that social networking is evil, and Facebook is not to be trusted. In fact, it’s neither of these things. While Facebook and its policies don’t come out smelling of roses, neither, unfortunately, does Robert.
First, let’s deal with Facebook. For many commentators, what the episode demonstrates is that Facebook regards the data which its users put into the system as theirs, rather than belonging to the users. That, it’s claimed, is why the company is so keen to prevent products like the one which Robert used. The theory goes that, by keeping your information away from other services, Facebook ties you into it – and thus, retains your loyalty. It’s the old “walled garden” of yore.
There’s something in this, and Facebook is certainly guilty of preventing users getting their own personal data out of the system. In this, though, it’s merely following the “Web 2.0″ pattern to its logical conclusion. When the users provide the data and the company takes the profit, it’s in the company’s interest to be closed and keep those users in, not open and potentially let them out.
So Facebook is no innocent. But neither, really, is Robert. Certainly, Robert was aware that there was a risk involved in running this kind of software – he’s savvy enough on the terms of service of Facebook to know that pulling data out poses a risk.
But there’s a second issue with what Robert’s been doing, which is related to the question which everyone has been asking: just whose data was being harvested? Most coverage has taken the approach that the data was Robert’s, that he was denied the ability to take out his own data.
In fact, of course, the majority of the data that Robert was merrily transferring to Plaxo belonged to the people on his friends list. He had simply been given access to it on Facebook. And that raises the question of whether there was any kind of implied permission from those “friends” that Robert could take their information and import it, wholesale, into another web site.
What the whole issue revolves around is trust, and what you’re expecting someone to do with information you supply to them through a social network. Most people would be happy enough for someone to take their name, email address and so on and put it into a client on their own PC. Most would also be happy with that being stored in the address books of things like Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo!
Some, though, would object to their information being put into services like Plaxo – indeed, although I’m a happy user of Plaxo, I’ve had friends who have requested that I remove their information from the service as they don’t trust it.
And this is the issue with Robert’s harvesting. While I know Robert well enough to trust him not to do anything harmful with my email address, that may not be the case for everyone who’s email address he’s harvested. Friending on a social network implies different levels of trust to different people, and it involves different expectations of what someone will do with data. There are, as yet, no hard and fast rules – and this is one of the reasons why Robert has run into a hail of different opinions.