A Q&A discussion with Plaxo’s Joseph Smarr and John McCrea

There’s a big dustup today as Robert Scoble was removed from Facebook for running a Plaxo Script that was scraping the profile data (names and emails) of his opt-in friends. Robert was now let back into Facebook under an hour ago.

All of the above is just a taste of the real issue, as this leads to the bigger issue of privacy, ownership of data, and the future of openness on social networks.

A discussion with Plaxo at 2:30PM PST, I was typing very quickly, the bold are my questions and their answers, some of it is slightly paraphrased, however if I said something wrong, they can email me and I’ll immediately correct it.

Tell me about the event today, is this a planned feature?
This Facebook input feature has been in the works for some time, this was planned to be released today, but was still going to be tested. They spent today trying to explain to others, and also to find out what was happening.

Why didn’t you use use the FaceBook API?
FB doesn’t allow email addresses to be exported, which is critical to build a social graph. The script would grab the email addresses (which were an image), and profile data.

But the email is an image for a reason, so it doesn’t get scraped.
There’s explicity permission between members (as they are friends) so why prevent email addresses to be shared.

How does the script work?

Was planning to work with Facebook, as they did from LinkedIn a year ago (who were open to the export, and has been popular for Plaxo). Plaxo did not yet reach out to Facebook, and are now in damage control mode. There may be a conversation now.

Is Robert employed by Plaxo?
No, he’s an early adopter and eager user.

Where are you headed next?

We’re going to have a conversation with Facebook (that is starting now) and will role this feature out.

Who owns the profile data in Facebook?
The users the data that entered, and they should have access to all the data they’ve shared with their friends. The exchange between the members should be shared between and explicitly permission model.

What else should we know?
in 2008 Data portability thrust is where we want to head, we want to turn the model upsdie down, so instead of widgets going to the social graph, we would like to make the social graph very portable. This is an area where Plaxo as more depth than anyone else.

What other misconceptions need to be cleared up?
The big story is, this is going to be an open social web, this is going to provide clarity to users controlling portability of their data. This is not a battle between Facebook and Plaxo, we don’t want to steal their user base, we really believe we want to be able to let people connect to each other. We don’t want Robert to get shut down or for him to stop using Facebook, we want to co-exist.

Is this product a direct activity to increase the market value of Plaxo to be acquired?
This wasn’t a strategy that we would have chosen, it’s unexpected, and is something that users have been asking for a while. Explicetly, no, this is not a visiblity raising trick to any kind of M&A capability. We did not control the timing on this.

Update: Someone suggested that I should add my own opinion here. I was hesitating to do so as it’s all been said by hundreds or thousands of others. Anyways, here’s my opinion: Robert nor Plaxo don’t have the right to scrape these addresses without the explicit consent of the friends of Robert. I’m one of them, and I’d like to have an opt-in before Robert scrapes my data and exports them anywhere.

There’s a unsaid social contract that if you become my friend, I expect you to use my information that I share with you justly, and most of all, be considerate. On the other hand, what’s happening is just the taste of what’s to come, this is the year where the social graph will become portable, whether containers like Facebook or Plaxo allow it, or other tools come around to scrape it.

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  • A quick point which may have been addressed already, but I don’t have the time to read all comments right now.

    Most social networks have relied on these feature to enable people to find and invite friends. Facebook itself does it with it’s friend finder.

    I was recently at a conference where this was discussed and someone uttered that it should be considered as spam.

    I think the responsibility lies with the user. If someone invites their friends its their judgement call.

    Limiting people from being able to upload/import their contacts will seriously hinder the viral growth of these type of sites.

  • #46 – yes, the issue gets quite sticky – if i give you my biz card, can you do whatever you want with that data including selling it? it’s raised some interesting questions.

    it’s unfortunate that the issue revolves around scoble and his being compared to ghandi.

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  • Krish you said: “Suppose if this friend turns into your bitter enemy in due course, who would you blame? You will only blame the trust you have placed on the person. ”

    But just earlier you said: “If Robert misuses the information I gave (like handing it over to a marketer or a spammer or govt.), then he is wrong and I will take legal action on Robert.”

    Which is it? According to the former philosophy on trust, the courts should throw out your case because you were the one who trusted him.

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  • I think the argument that friends would need to opt-in to Robert exporting the email addresses to be incredibly wrong. I have seen this argument on other sites as well. We are really taking personal ownership of data to a far extreme.
    If one “befriends” another in a way that gives that person access to personal information, then that person may take that information to whatever tools they use. It is just like if I gave you a business card with my cell and email address. You can input that information in Outlook, gmail, a CRM tool, etc.
    What you can not do is improperly use that information for something beyond the implied permission (in facebook’s case I argue it is to connect). So, you could contact me using some communication platform, but you could not spam me.
    Users must consider the consequences of “befriending” others. What data are you letting them access? If you do not want them to get that information, take it off or use facebook’s great “Limitation” feature.

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  • Of course he scrapes all your data right now without Plaxo via the API. There are plugins right now that allow you to do this. Only the e-mail data is scraped.

    Ask yourself: Why only e-mail?

  • Jeremiah, that's the softest Q&A I've seen. Actually that's a press release gone completely and utterly unchallenged.

    How about fielding REAL questions about this from people?

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