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Who Owns Your Data on the Web?

Okay, so you've heard the news right? A-List blogger Robert Scoble gets kicked out of Facebook for running a new Plaxo beta script that scrapes his “Friends” (name and email address) from Facebook and inserts them into Plaxo, only to later be let back in.

Should Scoble be allowed to get his data out of Facebook in the format he chooses? Is it even his data to begin with? Does the data belong to Facebook’s? Is it yours? Who owns your data anyway?

According to Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0, there are two increasingly apparent realities about the future of the web:

  1. Data is POWER
  2. A war will be fought over control of the data

Join any social network today and you have a set of Terms of Service (TOS) to agree to. How many actually read those terms? Maybe it’s time to start paying attention. You may actually be giving up your right to the data you create on that particular site.

On the other hand, just because people agree to be your “Friend” on one social networking site, does that mean they want to be your Friend anywhere else? Who gives you the right to take their contact information elsewhere? Is it really your data or their data?

Tim O'Reilly, the man credited with coining the term “Web 2.0”, always said the data was the power. Whoever can own data and provide it to users in a clear, relevant format will be the victor. But shouldn't this type of social data belong to its original owner?

Separating the Social Graph from the Social Network Sites

According to Jeremiah Owyang, Senior Analyst focused on Social Computing and Interactive Marketing at Forrester Research, the Social Graph “is the representation of our relationships. Today, these graphs define our personal, family, or business communities on social websites”.

For every social network site we join, we create a social graph. Most people join more than one social networking site. As it stands now, they can’t easily transfer the contacts set up in one social network to another (i.e getting Facebook Friends in Plaxo).

So what is happening is that people are manually duplicating most of the information in their social graph – likely changing it based on the new social network. Wouldn’t it make things a lot easier if we could just have one big social graph that could be used for all our sites?

Hence Plaxo’s decision to create a script that scrapes contacts out of Facebook using functionality originally created for LinkedIn.

There’s also an organization setup to further the movement of Data Portability. Their mission: “To put all existing technologies and initiatives in context to create a reference design for end-to-end Data Portability. To promote that design to the developer, vendor and end-user community”.

Brad Fitzpatrick, creator of LiveJournal, is leading the movement to create a centralized social graph that is maintained by a third party. One of the goals he describes: is to make the social graph a “community asset”:

  • Establish a non-profit and open source software (with copyrights held by the non-profit) which collects, merges, and redistributes the graphs from all other social network sites into one global aggregated graph. This is then made available to other sites (or users) via both public APIs (for small/casual users) and downloadable data dumps, with an update stream / APIs, to get iterative updates to the graph (for larger users)
  • While the non-profit's servers and databases will initially be centralized, ensure that the design is such that others can run their own instances, sharing data with each other. Think 'git', not 'svn'. Then whose APIs/servers you use is up to you, as a site owner. Or run your own instance.

Owyang lists the challenges with creating a single social graph:

  • Social Network vendors scared to open up and let customers and their relationships easily move to other networks
  • Agreement needed between all vendors and participants
  • Ownership over project and data
  • Lack of general market awareness
  • User adoption (sadly, I think most users are sheep)
  • Likely, a need for a single login
  • Creation and costs of third-party silo
  • Privacy concerns: many European countries may not embrace
  • Multiple security issues
  • Legal and government may get involved

If we were eventually able to move to a single social graph, then we would still have issues regarding who owns the data. However, we would be removing the social network sites from the equation because they would now have to leverage this new “centralized social graph”.

 

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