Late last week, a Google Chrome browser extension called Facebook Friend Exporter received a flood of new interest as Google+ users looked for a way to import their Facebook friends into Google’s social network, Circles. However, since the app collects contact information from Facebook, it violate’s the site’s terms of service, and Facebook implemented a throttling mechanism that prevents it from scraping email addresses.
LinkedIn also blocked two Facebook professional networking apps: BranchOut for trying to profit from pulling in LinkedIn profile data into an enterprise recruiting search tool,and Monster’s BeKnown for sending promotional messages through LinkedIn’s messages API. These are the latest examples of long-running issues with platform owners and developers both trying to provide the same value to users and customers.
Facebook Prohibits Data Scrapers
The Facebook Friend Exporter was originally released by open source software developer, Mohamed Mansour, in November 2010. Similar to some other Facebook-altering browser extensions such as Better Facebook that violate the terms of service, the extension was ignored by Facebook until it received too much attention and was perceived as a threat to the company’s efforts to control core value, this time in the form of its user growth and retention.
Facebook Friend Exporter scrapes the email addresses and other contact info of a user’s friends, and allows them to be downloaded as a Google Contacts or .csv file that could then be imported into Gmail, allowing users to more easily recreate their Facebook social graph on Google Circles. This violates section 3.2 of the TOS that states “You will not collect users’ content or information, or otherwise access Facebook, using automated means (such as harvesting bots, robots, spiders, or scrapers) without our permission.”
In a past spat with Google over data portability, Facebook has claimed that users don’t own the email addresses of friends, and therefore may not export them .The social graphs it holds for users are Facebook’s most valuable asset and its core advantage over Google+, so allowing these graphs to be scraped and imported into Circles represented a clear threat to Facebook.
Facebook Friend Exporter’s download site now says it has 22,414 users, with 22,092 installing the extension in the last week. This spike in usage and press about the extension alerted Facebook to it, leading it to alter its mobile site the email addresses of friends disappear from their profiles if a user’s account quickly views the profiles of more than five friends. This prevents the extension from scraping a user’s entire friend list.
Mansour claims a new version that circumvents Facebook’s blocking mechanism on the way. Users should install Facebook Friend Exporter at their own risk, as its usage could constitute a TOS violation that could lead a user’s account to be suspended.
Update: As our commenter Jan notes, scrapers of this nature also create data security risks for users. If scrapers like Facebook Friend Exporter was allowed, hackers who gain access to a user’s account could steal the email addresses of all their friends. Developer of such plugins could also be collecting any of the scraped email addresses. Therefore, blocking access to these types of scrapers is not only good for Facebook in a competitive sense, but it also protects users.
LinkedIn Moves Against Facebook-Based Competitors
Over the past month, professional networking Facebook app BranchOut saw a spike in usage grow it to 250,000 daily active users, and job posting site Monster.com launched its own Facebook app for professional networking called BeKnown. Both apps allowed users to import their work history and other profile data from LinkedIn, and BeKnown let users send invites via the LinkedIn messages API.
BranchOut plans to release a premium enterprise recruiting search tool on August 1st that would allow the company to charge recruiters to search for job candidates by BranchOut profile information, including that pulled from LinkedIn. This violates LinkedIn’s terms of service, which prohibit the licensing or reselling of access to LinkedIn data. Therefore, LinkedIn has blocked BranchOut’s ability to import profile data.
However, BranchOut has responded stating that “Changes to the LinkedIn API have little impact on the BranchOut experience, as it was only being used by a small fraction of our users.”
BeKnown’s app also imported LinkedIn data, building the value of the product that Monster clients could have their job listings posted it. The app also sent promotional messages through the LinkedIn API, violating that site’s TOS. Both profile importation and messaging has now been blocked by LinkedIn.
Monster has responded saying “We are surprised and disappointed by LinkedIn’s decision, which we believe not only goes against the interests of LinkedIn users, but also contradicts what LinkedIn claims to stand for – openness and connectivity.” BeKnown is urging users to leave comments of support on a post it made to the LinkedIn developer forum asking access to be reinstated. BeKnown may be more vulnerable than BranchOut to the API block because the fledgling, 10,000 DAU app was using LinkedIn messages to grow.
The blocking of apps by Facebook and LinkedIn is a sign of the growing pains of social platforms that with time have built valuable collections of user data. There’s a fine balance between promoting innovation and giving away competitive advantage. Developers should expect the platforms to protect themselves, and should know that just because they aren’t shut down immediately doesn’t mean their data usage has been approved. While there are monetary and philosophical rewards for operating in the gray area, there’s also great potential for loss of development resources.