Scoble Scrapes Friends’ Trust

Robert Scoble has been the talk of the Web today, for getting booted from Facebook. Robert is back on Facebook now, but he shouldn’t be. Facebook suspended the former Microsoft evangelist blogger for a terms-of-service violation. He used a testing Plaxo tool to mine, or “scrape,” information from about 5,000 of his contacts. [Editor’s note, April 4, 2017: Three Scobelizer posts gone; links removed.] 

Robert’s suspension raised a ruckus about who owns the data, he or Facebook, and how the information goes in but doesn’t easily come out. I won’t engage that debate here, because others address it so well. Some of the better responses to Robert’s scraping expedition:

I agree with Ian Betteridge, who blogged:

Whose data was being harvested? Most coverage has taken the approach that the data was Robert’s, that he was denied the ability to take out his own data. In fact, of course, the majority of the data that Robert was merrily transferring to Plaxo belonged to the people on his friends list. He had simply been given access to it on Facebook. And that raises the question of whether there was any kind of implied permission from those ‘friends’ that Robert could take their information and import it, wholesale, into another web site.

Facebook may seek to profit from user data and even make it difficult for subscribers to move data out. But subscribers chose to put their data on Facebook and to share it with Robert as a friend. Those were voluntary acts.

Robert didn’t just violate Facebook terms of service. He violated the trust of those people that approved him as a friend, particularly for people that don’t publicly share their contact information. Surely, Robert must have known what he was doing.

I believe he took license here, because of his profile and the controversy about the one-way flow of information to Facebook. For Facebook, permanently booting Robert Scoble would have caused too many perception problems. But censure is the only acceptable response, lest Facebook see others similarly try to scrape contact information.

Facebook is somewhat controversial now, in part because information easily flows in but doesn’t easily come out. There is much personal data on Facebook that other people or companies want. Plaxo surely is one of the coveters of Facebok data. How could Robert not know this?

Robert really hasn’t made clear his relationship with Plaxo, but in a blog post he diminished the data he scraped using the Plaxo script: “What does it collect? Names and email address and birthday. I wanted to get all my contacts into my Microsoft Outlook address book and hook them up with the Plaxo system, which 1,800 of my friends are already on”.

Facebook seeks to protect e-mail addresses. In his post on the Scoble scraping, Michael Arrington explained: “The Facebook API doesn’t allow exporting of a crucial piece of data, email addresses. In fact, emails are shown as images instead of text on Facebook so that scripts cannot easily download them”.

Plaxo’s Pulse tool uses optical character recognition as means of mining e-mail addresses. Robert should know better than to use such software, and Facebook was right to suspend him for it. Facebook should protect e-mail addresses lest spammers mine them. I pay extra to hide the WHOIS information on my domains, because of spammers. I would gladly be listed in the WHOIS database, but I learned from bad experience that spammers mine valid e-mail addresses there.

Facebook should protect its users from the likes of Robert and Plaxo. I consider Plaxo to be a spam generator, because of the e-mails sent without my say-so requesting my information to be updated. Someone like Robert joins Plaxo, hands over his contacts’ personal data and the service spams everybody on the list to update their information in that big address book in the sky. No thanks!

Some advice to Robert: Rather than mine 5,000 contacts, lose about 4,000 of them. Over the weekend, I finally pruned my Outlook address book from about 1,400 contacts to 400. I had kept many contacts on file because people move around, and it’s handy to have a record going back 12 years. But lots of companies have disappeared in the 12 years I’ve used Outlook. The time had come to prune back to a smaller, more manageable number of core contacts.

Anyone else is just a Facebook log-in away. No scraping necessary.

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk