The Scoble mess and data portability

So Robert Scoble has his account suspended by Facebook for using an automated script to harvest his contacts and their email addresses (see my previous post), and all hell breaks loose. Scoble, whose account is later reinstated, is denounced for being a publicity-seeking limelight hog, and for using a script from Plaxo that is an egregious breach of Facebook’s terms of use (since it uses optical character recognition to grab email addresses, which the site keeps as image files). The end of the world? Hardly, as Mark Hopkins at Mashable points out.

In any case, some have sided with Scoble, because they feel Facebook should allow users to export their data, while others argue that the site can do whatever it wants, and when you sign the terms of use you effectively agree that you accept that. Whatever you think of Scoble and Plaxo’s script, however (which seems a little devious to me), there is an important issue at the centre of this Techmeme frenzy, as Scott Karp at Publishing 2.0 and others have pointed out: Who owns your data?

In a post I came across this morning, Paul Buchheit (the guy who created Gmail) makes an interesting point, which is that many other services — including Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail and LinkedIn — allow you to import your addresses from some other program or service. I just finished doing exactly that with, and I’ve done it with countless other services as well, including (most recently) an aggregator called Spokeo.

So how come you can do that with every service except Facebook? That doesn’t seem right. The Data Portability Group has extended an invitation to the site to join their push for a single standard. Marc Canter thinks we need better access controls for our data, and Chris “Factory Joe” Messina thinks that we need to move away from using our email addresses as the core of our online identities, and move towards a URL-based system. One thing is for sure: this issue isn’t going to go away.

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