Risks of pushing a terms of use envelope

Quite a major kerfuffle has developed in the past 24 hours over Facebook booting Robert Scoble out of the social network.

Facebook sent him an email that accused him of running an automated script which is in violation of Facebook’s terms of use.

Robert was indeed running an automated script as he explains in a post today, testing an as yet unreleased feature of Plaxo Pulse that scrapes Facebook pages for content like email addresses.

Blogosphere opinion about this issue seems more or less evenly divided if linked discussions shown on Techeme are any indicator, on support for Robert or support for Facebook’s action.

Either way, it throws a bright spotlight on data portability and who owns your data on a social network.

Shel and I talked about this as part of a discussion in today’s episode #307 of the FIR podcast.

What’s prompted this post is an interesting angle to the story by Michael Arrington writing in TechCrunch:

[…] [Plaxo] developed optical character recognition software to recognize email addresses and add them to the export.

Facebook doesn’t like this, of course. But it isn’t Plaxo that’s paying the price. It’s the journalists and bloggers who’ve been testing out the service.

[…] Plaxo was certainly aware of the risk. In an email from the company asking me to try the service last week, they said “We don’t know whether Facebook will try to shut us down (despite their increasing verbal support for the concepts of open-ness), so we want to let a few key folks have access to the functionality before we make it available to everyone.”

Yeah, they guessed right. Plaxo started running automated scripts against Facebook without any warning or discussion with them beforehand, in violation of their terms of service and, I’ll add, common sense. Of course users were shut down. Facebook must regulate this kind of behavior, without it the service would crumble.

So let me get this right.

Not only do you appear to have some journalists and bloggers using a social network in a way that’s in clear violation of the terms of use, using a tool produced by a company who thinks Facebook could take some disruptive action as a result, but also those same journalists and bloggers would have done this with some broad awareness that they might be violating terms of use.

They did read those terms of use, right?

It seems to me that the relevant part that addresses this is in the paragraph headed ‘Proprietary Rights in Site Content; Limited License’:

[…] Except for your own User Content, you may not upload or republish Site Content on any Internet, Intranet or Extranet site or incorporate the information in any other database or compilation, and any other use of the Site Content is strictly prohibited. Such license is subject to these Terms of Use and does not include use of any data mining, robots or similar data gathering or extraction methods. Any use of the Site or the Site Content other than as specifically authorized herein, without the prior written permission of Company, is strictly prohibited and will terminate the license granted herein.

So tell me – what envelope is being pushed here? Investigating new ways of connecting the dots, or getting to the limits of common sense?

[Later] Facebook relented and have let Scoble back in.

Robert posts the content of an email he received from Facebook which contains this interesting caveat:

[…] Since you contacted us and have agreed not to run the script again, we have reactivated your account. You should now be able to log in with your normal email and password. In the future, please refrain from running these types of scripts again.

Some will no doubt say this has all been just a storm in a tea cup. Far from it, in my view.

This is all about issues embracing data portability, as I mentioned earlier. It’s also about pressuring a company when you don’t like its terms of use and seeing who blinks first.

Not sure I like this ends justifies the means approach. Bet we see more of it, though.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Terinea Weblog

    Would Facebook let him back in, had here not been Robert Scoble?

    It will be interesting to see how future issues pan out or shape people concept/opinion of social networks.


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