Given the recent block of Google Friend Connect by Facebook, TechCrunch and Robert Scoble decided to start an argument. This is perfect fodder for this week’s bitchmeme as there are a few issues that people tend to ignore. First, if you put any data on the internet, privacy is an afterthought. Basically, if you put data into MySpace, Facebook or LinkedIn, it is getting crawled and recrawled every day. When you start making friends on social networks, you are willingly foregoing your right to privacy. You are granting permission for these people to view whatever data you have placed on the social network. By default, you are also giving access to your data to their friends as well, because most networks allow some visibility to second degree relationships. But privacy is not really the issue.

Data Ownership

Data ownership is the concept that most people are getting wrong. If you enter data into a service on the internet, that service owns the data that you entered. They typically will state this in the terms of service. They also have a privacy policy that states they will not share the data without your consent and will not do anything bad with it. TechCrunch has argued that the user owns the data, and they are only partially right. As an example, here is an excerpt from the Facebook Terms of Use:

All content on the Site and available through the Service, including designs, text, graphics, pictures, video, information, applications, software, music, sound and other files, and their selection and arrangement (the “Site Content”), are the proprietary property of the Company…

If you compare this with any other site that allows the same type of interaction, you will find the same type of language. This basically means that if you enter data into their site, they control it. This is very standard. You probably agreed to something like this when you signed up for GMail or Yahoo Mail. The main point is that the service owns the “implementation” of this data, essentially the physical data storage and internal representation. Obviously, they need to control that as tightly as possible. They have absolutely no obligation to allow exports of this data (though that is a good idea) or to provide an API to access the data. These activities could possibly go against the stated terms of service or the privacy policy. That is why Scoble has a point in saying that Facebook was (somewhat) correct in blocking Friend Connect.

In the background you hear people screaming, “But it is my data, my personal information and network.” No, it is not your data, it is stored on the Facebook servers and they have allowed you to create a “social network”. You own the real, physical relationships. You are the one who met the person that gave you that email address. An email address is important to us, and hopefully we have stored it in a safe place. Storing all of you personal and contact’s information in a service like Facebook and making that the “main” store of the information is a terrible idea. Cell phones and day planners are perfectly fine for this. Does more synchronization and backup capabilities need to exist with the social networks? In today’s internet, sites are being criticized for not providing these capabilities. Data portability needs to gain acceptance, but people have to understand that we do not just “flick a switch”. This will take a long time. Lawyers will get involved to determine whether the APIs required to support data portability do not violate the terms of use or the privacy policy. Given that Google, Facebook and MySpace all want to be the one to control all of your data, this could take a very long time.