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The Net Takeaway: Who's data is it, anyway?


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Who's data is it, anyway? · 01/05/2008 09:24 PM,

Robert Scoble, famous blogger, was recently locked out of Facebook for a short time because of a program he was using to “scrape” his contacts and now is on a rampage about ‘his’ data, and how he should both have access to it including export, and control over its usage.

All that doesn’t bother me as much as just realizing that a company can totally wipe you off the face of their walled garden without any due process or any real recourse.

Lots of people are jumping on the bandwagon… but let’s think about it. Is it really his data to complain about?

He posits that, because he allowed all these people to “friend” him, that he somehow owns this collection of information, this social graph. He goes on to suggest that the social network sites are a “utility” of sorts, which provide some sort of facilitation or fulfillment of requests.

Ok. Let’s look at some allegories, and see if that makes sense:

The only data I can own is the stuff I’ve created on my own personal drive. 2nd is the stuff I create on a dedicated hosting facility (which will still blow me away if I violate TOS, so I would backup onto my personal drive). After that, I don’t own any of the data I generate via the use of a 3rd party unless they say I do. Even data I enter on my profile becomes theirs. They can allow me to “remove” it (meaning not display it publicly), but they could keep it and analyze it to ascertain “what factors lead to someone removing their profile”.

You may not like that. You may say “I created it, so it’s mine”.... but that’s not true. We just went over lots of cases where it’s not. “But this doesn’t have to be like that!” you cry. You are right. We didn’t all have to jump on Facebook. We could have waited until a more open platform was created, or create one ourselves.

But we didn’t. And now people complain? Here’s something to complain about: Credit cards now require consumers to resolve disputes in binding mediation, and consumers are not allowed to sue in open court. Binding mediation, btw, has been shown over and over again to be biased in favor of the person paying for it: the credit card company. You want to complain about something, here’s a good one. Talk about giving up due process and recourse.

Otherwise, this is silly. You were all lazy. You didn’t want to create a social network which allows import and export of relationships. You didn’t want to create and host your own services to facilitate communication (make your own mailing lists, discussion forums, etc. Make a community site. Hell, make your own Facebook for just your friends). But if you willingly enter your data into a 3rd party, and allow it to mediate your social interactions, why cry foul now? Isn’t the very fact that its an “independent” 3rd party one of the reasons why everyone jumped on?

So, either be extreme (like the open source zealots) and don’t give your data to any org who won’t give you complete control over it (no grey, either full access or no use)... or accept that you don’t own the data generated by your actions, be they social, transactional, or even just reading a blog. And let’s all push to make apps of the future more open… instead of complaining about entering a deal forewarned and then trying to get out b/c you don’t like how it works.

PS: As the story expands, it’s becoming a nice examination of the value of data, for example: Data and the Future of the Web at Publishing 2.0. As more people recognize the value of data (both businesses and consumers), we’ll see higher standards on what consumers expect around “their” data, and we’ll finally see more respect and clever utilization of data by businesses instead of just dumping it all in a warehouse (I hope).

PPS: Ok, as things develop, it turns out that we are continuing to philosophize instead of solve the problem. Here, Dare Obasanjo talks of an implicit social contract as if he were a lawyer. As a commenter mentioned, the only things that count are the TOS if you choose to use a 3rd party to mediate your communications. Here’s Dare: “Taking my data and sharing it with a third party without my permission isn’t cool.”. Sounds like you continue to believe that data that you’ve contributed to Facebook is somehow yours. (Actually, it sounds like data you’ve given directly to Scoble to load into Plaxo is somehow yours, too!). Sounds like anything that describes you that you contributed to you is yours. Is that really logical?

One thing that is coming to light: People believe that they are giving access to other people, and that somehow the mediating party never owns the data. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any situation even remotely like that. If you use a service, the data is clearly theirs. They can choose to have constraints or make it sound like the data is yours “we won’t use it for advertising. We won’t share with a third party”... but you don’t ever see “We can’t share your data, as its not ours”.

Again, I await for the person to make the Facebook Lite, which is 1/3 of the things Facebook can do, based on Google’s OpenSocial API... but allows complete import and export of the Social Graph. Then we’ll see: if everyone moves over because of this freedom, great. I’m not holding my breath.

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  1. Good post! Three things:
    1) you seem to suggest that paying for a service makes a difference in your right to access the data you create. That’s not exactly true, it’s the contract (often the license agreement) that makes the difference, not the price.
    2) Here up north in Canada, there’s a law to protect us: PIPEDA ( So in the case of credit cards companies, medical or insurance records and such, we are fully entitled to access ALL of the personally identifiable data (transactions). However, I confess I’m not sure how PIPEDA would apply to mediated transactions such as in the case of Facebook.
    3) Could it be the method (scraping) that caused Scoble to be banned, rather than trying to access his own data? I can easily figure cases were attempting to scrape content would get me locked out in order to avoid the possibility of impacting the site’s performance.


    S.Hamel    Jan 5, 10:13 PM    #

  2. Thanks for the comment. In order:
    1) When I pay, I expect things to be different… but they usually aren’t. At least paying opens up some additional data access, but its not to the level desired here. And yes, all of what I describe is TOS and contract dependent. I should have stated that more clearly.
    2) For the Pipeda legislation and the consumer data acts in UK and Germany (as well as the EU ones), access is guaranteed… utilization is not. Again, its not your data. They had to make laws to allow you to look at it! But you can’t use the data, transfer the data, etc. You can request expunging in most cases. Germany is pretty open and covers lots of companies; the rest are more limited in what they allow you to do. Still, ownership is not disputed: this is just a requirement, but its still their data.
    3) The scraping was the original issue, but that’s just a symptom of the real issue driving this discussion: People feel that Scoble shouldn’t have had to scrape; he should have had an API. That is, the data is his to decide what to do with. And the people who contributed data to him (by friending him) also feel that the data is theirs, and that they should control whether he can export it or not (via scraping or any other approach).

    Michael Wexler    Jan 7, 11:51 AM    #

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