Plaxo 'screen scraper' tool offends Facebook

Social-networking site Facebook has fought off a major-league blogger's bid to extract his own contact list from the service, using a utility from rival site Plaxo, highlighting the unanswered question of who owns data associated with people's identities on social-networking sites.

Social-networking site Facebook has fought off a major-league blogger's bid to extract his own contact list from the service, using a utility from rival site Plaxo, highlighting the unanswered question of who owns data associated with people's identities on social-networking sites.

Facebook closed down Robert Scoble's account when it found he had used an alpha version of a "screen scraper" utility from Plaxo, to gather his 5,000 contacts' personal data, including e-mail addresses and birthdays, for export to his Outlook and Plaxo contacts databases. The account was reinstated after Scoble, who made his name as a technical evangelist and pioneering blogger at Microsoft, agreed to stop using the utility.

Facebook has been criticised as a walled garden, for making it difficult for users to export the contact details or so-called "social graphs" they build up there, and import them to other social-networking sites. But Facebook supporters have pointed out that in this instance Scoble was breaking the service terms and conditions by attempting to use an automated tool, and by exporting personal information including phone numbers, e-mail addresses and birthdays.

Plaxo has complained that its data importer, an unreleased feature of its Plaxo Pulse social-networking site, did nothing different from other importers, including those offered by Facebook to import data from other services, such as Google's Gmail.

"For some reason Facebook has gone to inordinate lengths to prevent users from getting data out of Facebook. What's good for goose is apparently not good for gander," John McCrea, vice president of marketing at Plaxo, told ZDNet blogger Dan Farber.

"We are a bit alarmed at seeing users' accounts suffer. We will evaluate the situation day-by-day, but we are still committed to user ownership and control and the portability of data," McCrea added.

Facebook shut Scoble's account because it made a vast number of rapid-fire accesses that looked like they could be from a spammer.

Meanwhile, security research firm Fortinet warned last week that a malicious Facebook widget called Secret Crush has been prompting users to download software that includes spyware from adware manufacturer Zango.

The UK's Information Commissioner has warned users to be careful about sharing information on sites such as Facebook because they may be vulnerable to just this sort of attack.

Plaxo has been reported this week as being for sale, with suggestions that Facebook might be a likely purchaser, wanting a more business-oriented service to add to its social focus. While Plaxo is rumoured to be valued at around US$200 million, Facebook has topped 60 million users and is said to be worth anything up to $15 billion. Microsoft recently bought 1.6 percent of the site for US$240 million.

Facebook and Plaxo were unable to respond to requests for comment before publication.