The Coming War Over Data On The Web
3 min read

The Coming War Over Data On The Web

If you dig beneath the surface of the brouhaha over Robert Scoble getting his Facebook account suspended for testing a new Plaxo Facebook app that mines user email addresses in violation of Facebook’s terms of service, you’ll find evidence of 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

War? Start with these astute observations by Nick Carr and Paul Buchheit:

Far from being just “his own information,” however, the information included the names, email addresses, and birthdays of 5,000 Facebookers who had “friended” Scoble. The act of “friending” on a social network site, it’s important to remember, is a fairly cavalier act, often undertaken with little thought.

Now, if you happen to be one of those “friends,” would you think of your name, email address, and birthday as being “Scoble’s data” or as being “my data.”

From Scoble: freedom fighter or data thief?

However, when I signed up for Facebook I gave them my Gmail address and password, using their find friends feature:

It was very helpful — I didn’t think that I would know anyone on Facebook, but it turns out that I knew hundreds of them.

However, Gmail’s Terms of Use seems to prohibit this:

“You also agree that you will not use any robot, spider, other automated device, or manual process to monitor or copy any content from the Service.”

From Should Gmail, Yahoo, and Hotmail block Facebook?

As Nick points out, the issue of who owns “the data” is quite a tangled web, if you’ll pardon the pun. On one level, there’s the issue of whether services like Facebook actually own your data because you agreed to that ownership in the Terms of Service. But even if you believe ideologically that each user owns their data, then you encounter the thorny issue of “data entanglement” — users have all of their friends’ data incorporated into their data profiles.

But Paul’s observation was what really made the battle lines visible. Each web service that lays claim to your data has a Terms of Service prohibition against you using other services to mine “your” data.

So what if Google or Yahoo, who lost the Facebook acquisition/investment lottery to Microsoft, decided to enforce this apparent TOS prohibition against using your Gmail or Yahoo mail as a basis for discovering friends on Facebook?

Whatever the result, the user would be caught in the TOS crossfire, without any apparent rights or recourse.

Shield SwordDave Winer also senses a war brewing, but casts it as a cyclical struggle that reflects the cycles of technology development:

It’s a big effin loop we’re in. One of these times around one of the companies that feels (incorrectly) that they have a lock on their users, will voluntarily give it up and be a leader in Generation N+1. I’ve never seen it happen, but in theory I think it could.

I think it’s unlikely we will see the cycle end any time soon — with the disintegration of distribution monopolies, the new power in media is in the data. That’s how Facebook got it’s $15 billion valuation — the potential to exploit its users’ data.

There was a big debate yesterday over Twitter’s business model, or lack thereof. Saul Hansell points out today that since Twitter doesn’t control the interface to its data, it can’t monetize that interface through traditional media monetization.

But Twitter does have one valuable asset that none of its interface or application partners can control — the database itself. If there’s a business model for Twitter, it’s in the data.

Is it a fair exchange for users to get a free service in exchange for giving up control of their data? And who is the arbiter when different services lay claim to control of the same user’s data?

Perhaps this struggle is the result of software application service providers seeking to monetize through traditional media business models, i.e. advertising.

Blame it on Google. But that won’t stop everyone from wanting to be Google.