Scoble, Facebook and Data Ownership

I've sort of ignored the whole Scoble/Facebook fiasco, with people arguing on both sides who "owns" the data. Jimmy Gutterman misses the point a bit, because Facebook has already opened up the social graph through the Facebook Platform API. What they don't expose - and why this script resorted to screen-scraping - is any contact information. He paints this as a "lock in" issue, but I doubt that's their primary goal. We already complain enough about the spam we get on Facebook, and I would hate it if someone in my network shared - accidentally or on purpose - that contact information with spammers.

So, yeah, I think what Facebook did is a good thing, which seems to be the majority sentiment. Mike Arrington said Plaxo flubbed it and Jeff Jarvis agrees.  Loren Feldman called Robert Scoble a corporate spy. Allen discussed how we should approach the data ownership problem. Dare says Facebook is right - since Scoble did not enter any of the contact information about his friends, so any argument that it is "his" data is tenuous.

As Ed Felten points out, though, the entire discussion is framed wrong - it's not about who "owns" the data.

It’s worth noting, too, that even today’s expansive intellectual property regimes don’t apply to the data at issue here. Facts aren’t copyrightable; there’s no trade secret here; and this information is outside the subject matter of patents and trademarks.

Once we give up the idea that the fact of Robert Scoble’s friendship with (say) Lee Aase, or the fact that that friendship has been memorialized on Facebook, has to be somebody’s exclusive property, we can see things more clearly. Scoble and Aase both have an interest in the facts of their Facebook-friendship and their real friendship (if any). Facebook has an interest in how its computer systems are used, but Scoble and Aase also have an interest in being able to access Facebook’s systems. Even you and I have an interest here, though probably not so strong as the others, in knowing whether Scoble and Aase are Facebook-friends.

How can all of these interests best be balanced in principle? What rights do Scoble, Aase, and Facebook have under existing law? What should public policy says about data access? All of these are difficult questions whose answers we should debate. Declaring these facts to be property doesn’t resolve the debate — all it does is rule out solutions that might turn out to be the best.

In other words, it's not about data ownership but about privacy. Everyone is making a big deal about Facebook, Google, and Plaxo joining The DataPortability Workgroup, but it remains to be seen whether they'll be more than just interoperability and balance against the privacy concerns. In some cases, data portability isn't a good thing.

Published Wednesday, January 9, 2008 11:08 AM by Tim Marman

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