The Scoble scuffle: Facebook, Plaxo at odds over data portability

When a popular blogger revealed that Facebook had banned his account, the Web erupted in speculative chatter. But where should they really be pointing fingers?

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
4 min read

A data import feature being tested by contact management site Plaxo hasn't gone over too well with social network Facebook.

At least one alpha tester of the new script has had his Facebook account disabled, due to an alleged terms-of-service violation that brings to light the sticky debate over just how "open" the social Web is--and ideally should be.

The controversy hit the Web when --who once gained notoriety when he publicly complained that Facebook wouldn't allow his friends list to surpass 5,000 people--posted a blog entry that revealed he'd been booted from the site.

Scoble, who initially just said that he'd been "working with a company to move my social graph to other places...(which) isn't allowable under Facebook's terms of service," later revealed that he'd been testing out an alpha feature for Plaxo and its relatively new Pulse social network.

Scoble reported that Facebook sent him an e-mail along with the account ban: "Our systems indicate that you've been highly active on Facebook lately and viewing pages at a quick enough rate that we suspect you may be running an automated script," the e-mail to Scoble read. "This kind of Activity would be a violation of our Terms of Use and potentially of federal and state laws."

Plaxo isn't happy. "We have been developing a Facebook import feature and have been getting it ready to roll out for general availability," John McCrea, the company's vice president of marketing, said in an interview with CNET News.com, "and we know that Robert Scoble's 5,000 friends would be the ultimate torture test for a feature like this. Robert was happy to work with us on this, and the paranoid folks at Facebook didn't like the idea of letting Robert get his friends list out, and shut him down."

In a later post, Scoble explained that the new script was designed to take minor information about the people on his Facebook friends list (their name, e-mail address, and birthday) and import it into his Plaxo address book so that he could then sync it with his Outlook e-mail contacts. "It did not look at anything else," Scoble wrote. "Just this stuff, no social-graph data. No personal information."

But birthdays, full names, and e-mail addresses are personal information, and so the notoriously protective Facebook may have a point: Scoble learned that about 1,800 of his 5,000 Facebook friends were already Plaxo members, but what about the other 3,200?

Those e-mail addresses would effectively go right into Plaxo's database, and while McCrea stressed that Plaxo itself would not use the information in any way (that didn't work out so well for the company in the past), someone like Scoble could invite those people to create Plaxo accounts at the push of a button.

Facebook profiles are accessible only to logged-in members who belong to the proper regional, school, or business "network," and the company has been loathe to allow that data outside its own domain.

"Robert would have those contacts, and their e-mail addresses would be in his address book, and Robert could do with that what he wanted," McCrea said, adding that a similar script is already available for business social network LinkedIn--a fact that LinkedIn representatives could not immediately confirm.

"He could sync it with Outlook, he could invite some of them to join him on Plaxo, or he could sync with Yahoo Mail, and next time he used LinkedIn or some other service that allows importing, he could import them into another service," McCrea said.

For Facebook, which has been pitched its teeming collection of user data as a gold mine for advertisers looking to market to specific demographics, letting any of this leak out of the system could dilute the company's "Social Ads" strategy.

But on the other hand, Facebook uses its own data import scripts to gather the contents of members' e-mail address books, to help them find which of their friends are on Facebook already. According to McCrea, this makes the Scoble ban a hypocritical move.

"It's sort of odd that Facebook, who's obviously been able to benefit tremendously from being able to do this on the one side, would put up such a fight on the other side," he said.

Facebook has not yet issued a statement on the matter.

With its launch of the Pulse social network and its vocal support for Google's OpenSocial standard, Plaxo has attempted to paint a picture of Facebook as closed-off and backward, as the rest of the social Web gravitates toward more open standards.

"We believe that this is not a zero-sum game, and in 2008, if we can achieve a vision of data portability, there will be more usage of the social web, not less," McCrea said. "This is not about trying to take anything away from Facebook. This is about users being able to find their friends on all the tools and services they use."