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January 03, 2008

The Data Ownership Wars Are Heating Up

You would have to have been in a cave or without Web access today to have missed Robert Scoble's one-day forced exit from Facebook, initiated after he utilized some pre-release software from Plaxo to pull down his friends' contact data. Without wanting to pile on that already fatigued story, it's an interesting salvo in what will be a heated, prolonged, battle between all the service providers, and their users, over who should gain access to what data, who owns it, and what they should be allowed to do with it.

Facebook's reasoning was that his efforts violated the company's terms of service. It's all well and good to bring your data into the site, but don't you dare try and get it out. FriendFeed's Paul Buchheit, doing some TOS sleuthing of his own, asks in response, Should Gmail, Yahoo, and Hotmail block Facebook? After all, Facebook users are all giving the site access to the same type of user information deemed so valuable, and just as in violation of the terms of services as Robert's stunt was.

And Facebook isn't alone in this yearning to import contacts from other services. LinkedIn does the same thing. So does Spokeo. You can synch up your Webmail contacts, or import a .vcf card from any application, like Microsoft Outlook or Apple's Address Book. But isn't this data yours? Shouldn't it be just as easy to get the data out as it was to get it in there in the first place?

This is bound to get even more intense in the coming year and beyond. Just look at what happened when the Google Reader team got a tad over-aggressive in deciding for you how you might want your shared link items distributed. There were calls from all corners of the Web for privacy and for Google to renounce the practice. With data being so easy to generate, and so portable, for different services and devices, and with so many companies' intellectual property effectively being from user generated content, they have a vested interest in keeping you and your data in, and the ability to export out.

With that being true, it's remarkable when some companies approach the issue in a much more transparent and beneficial way. Take Assetbar, for instance. In the company's product description, they write, "Don't worry, your data is yours. You can always delete everything and even export it as a .csv or XML file!" Assetbar knows that the data you brought in and you commented on, the data you shared and the private messages you created are yours.

I believe that users aren't going to stand for companies deciding just how they should be allowed to interact with their friends and their information. They are going to demand portability. They are going to demand transparency, and they are going to demand a rapid response when things go awry. That Facebook eventually got back to Robert today and restored his account is fine, but if he wasn't one of the highest-profile bloggers on the planet, there's no way it would have happened that quickly. This time, Facebook just may have done enough to save face. But there will be a next time, and a next, and a next, unless the policies change.
On the same wavelength, Scott Karp writes about:
The Coming War Over Data On The Web