Home' Technology Review : July August 2008 Contents FEATURE STORY
SOCIAL NETWORKING SITES ARE FIGHTING OVER
CONTROL OF USERS' PERSONAL INFORMATION.
THE OUTCOME IS LIKELY TO DETERMINE THE
FUTURE STRUCTURE OF THE INDUSTRY.
By ERICA NAONE
Technology blogger Robert Scoble wanted help moving
contact information for his 5,000 Facebook friends into
his Microsoft Outlook address book. He turned to Joseph
Smarr, chief platform architect at Plaxo, a company in
Mountain View, CA, that synchronizes contact information between
Outlook, other desktop e-mail programs, and a number of Web ser-
vices. Smarr gave Scoble a short program to test out, which automati-
cally paged through Scoble's Facebook connections and extracted
the names, birthdays, and e-mail addresses of his friends.
There was just one problem. The program triggered alerts at
Facebook, which disabled Scoble's account. "My identity disap-
peared," Scoble says. "If I was your friend, I turned gray---all my
information went gray. " Scoble was transformed from a man with
a small town of Facebook friends into a nonperson.
The incident brought to a head a debate that had been raging
for months behind the scenes at social-networking sites: who con-
trols the data users post on their profiles? Advocates of so-called
data portability, including Scoble and Smarr, say people should be
able to transfer information easily in and out of any Web services
they use. Facebook, on the other hand, says it needs to safeguard
the information it stores so that it isn't misused, and that means
keeping tight control over users' information. At stake is not sim-
ply the ease and security with which people move between social-
networking sites but control of the currency that gives those sites
their value: personal information.
Although Scoble's trouble managing his 5,000 Facebook friends
is an extreme example, similar problems are common. Many users
have five or six online accounts that use social data---perhaps an
e-mail account, an instant-messenger service, a profile on a social
network, a photo-sharing site, and a blog. "Every time you try to
sign up for some new service, it acts like you've never used another
website before," says Smarr. "You have to create a new account and
password from scratch. You have to fill in your profile all over again.
You have to find all the people on that site that you know, reconnect
with them, and reëstablish their relationship to you. I think this
adds up to a huge burden, and a lot of people aren't using or con-
suming from nearly as many of these sites as they could."
Chris Saad, cofounder and chair of the nonprofit DataPortability
Project, notes that many current methods of transferring data
expose users to huge security risks. For example, it's a common
practice for social sites to ask users to submit the usernames and
passwords for their Web-based e-mail accounts when they first
sign up; an automated service can then search the network for peo-
ple listed in their address books. "The door is open right now for
any application that scrapes your Gmail address book to go ahead
and scrape your shopping cart as well, or scrape your searches, or
keep your username and password and pretend to be you," says
Saad. "It's a nightmare of security, and it's something we need to
solve sooner rather than later."
Though most experts perceive a need for an easier, more secure
way for users to share data among social networks, there is little
agreement on a solution. "Is it going to be the closed, walled gar-
den of infrastructure, or the more open, distributed infrastructure
of the Web itself?" asks Smarr. The answer to that question could
determine whether social networks are dominated by a single
company---and these days Facebook has the edge---or whether
users will be able to jump around e ortlessly among a slew of flour-
ishing social sites, each with its own strengths and features.
BILL OF RIGHTS
The Plaxo o ce in Mountain View is large, open, and half-empty,
with, says Smarr, plenty of room for the company to grow. Rows of
Photograph by TOBY BURDITT
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