One of my predictions for 2008 was that "Privacy and personal data ownership will be a critical issue for Web-based businesses." Well, that didn’t take too long.
Robert Scoble opened a can of worms today by testing a new Plaxo feature that scraped his contact list out of his FaceBook profile and importing it into Plaxo (and by doing so synchronizing his Outlook contact list, a pretty reasonable use of his FaceBook friend list if you ask me). FaceBook banned him for using an automated script to suck out his contact data, and this has generated a flurry of blog posts debating who actually owns your contact data in a social network.
My kneejerk reaction is "duh". You, obviously, own your contact list data. However, there seems to be some controversy over whether FaceBook has a duty to "protect" its users’ data from being scraped out by nefarious software. The people making this argument no doubt also feel that the government needs to protect you from spending your money unwisely by taking it from you and spending it on $900 toilet seats. This is a dumb argument. If you establish a relationship with someone online, you are granting them some level of access to you. The only logical reason for FaceBook NOT to want you to have access to your contact list is because… drumroll please… it makes your data portable. It frees you to take your business elsewhere, and you can leave FaceBook unless it provides some kind of value proposition. Poor FaceBook. Is anyone else getting flashbacks to the MP3/RIAA/DRM controversy here or is it just me?
Anyway, I can now throw my full weight behind that prediction and say with some degree of certainty that 2008 will DEFINITELY be the year where you start to see personal data ownership and distributed social networks. Efforts like dataportability.org and atmy.Name are going to force the issue whether sites like FaceBook and MySpace like it or not. It’s great to see this debate hit the mainstream, it’s about time. Plus, it helps my prediction success ration