Last week Facebook canceled, and then reinstated, Robert Scoble’s account because he was using an automated script to export information about his Facebook friends to another service. The incident triggered a vigorous debate about who was in the right. Should Scoble be allowed to export this data from Facebook in the way he did? Should Facebook be allowed to control how the data is presented and used? What about the interests of Scoble’s friends?
An interesting meme kept popping up in this debate: the idea that somebody owns the data. Kara Swisher says the data belong to Scoble:
Thus, [Facebook] has zero interest in allowing people to escape easily if they want to, even though THE INFORMATION ON FACEBOOK IS THEIRS AND NOT FACEBOOK’S.
Sorry for the caps, but I wanted to be as clear as I could: All that information on Facebook is Robert Scoble’s. So, he should–even if he agreed to give away his rights to move it to use the service in the first place (he had no other choice if he wanted to join)–be allowed to move it wherever he wants.
Nick Carr disagrees, saying the data belong to Scoble’s friends:
Now, if you happen to be one of those “friends,” would you think of your name, email address, and birthday as being “Scoble’s data” or as being “my data.” If you’re smart, you’ll think of it as being “my data,” and you’ll be very nervous about the ability of someone to easily suck it out of Facebook’s database and move it into another database without your knowledge or permission. After all, if someone has your name, email address, and birthday, they pretty much have your identity – not just your online identity, but your real-world identity.
Where did we get this idea that facts about the world must be owned by somebody? Stop and consider that question for a minute, and you’ll see that ownership is a lousy way to think about this issue. In fact, much of the confusion we see stems from the unexamined assumption that the facts in question are owned.
It’s worth noting, too, that even today’s expansive intellectual property regimes don’t apply to the data at issue here. Facts aren’t copyrightable; there’s no trade secret here; and this information is outside the subject matter of patents and trademarks.
Once we give up the idea that the fact of Robert Scoble’s friendship with (say) Lee Aase, or the fact that that friendship has been memorialized on Facebook, has to be somebody’s exclusive property, we can see things more clearly. Scoble and Aase both have an interest in the facts of their Facebook-friendship and their real friendship (if any). Facebook has an interest in how its computer systems are used, but Scoble and Aase also have an interest in being able to access Facebook’s systems. Even you and I have an interest here, though probably not so strong as the others, in knowing whether Scoble and Aase are Facebook-friends.
How can all of these interests best be balanced in principle? What rights do Scoble, Aase, and Facebook have under existing law? What should public policy says about data access? All of these are difficult questions whose answers we should debate. Declaring these facts to be property doesn’t resolve the debate – all it does is rule out solutions that might turn out to be the best.