Web 2.0 Suicide Machine Offers No Painless Deaths for Facebook

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Apparently, Facebook is a pro-life organization. Pro Web 2.0 life, that is. The dominant social network has begun blocking users of the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine, an Internet-based application created by the Dutch media lab Moddr that makes it incredibly easy to strip all traces of your social media life off the Internet with a simple press of the button.%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%% The move by Facebook is hardly a surprise. The company says that Web 2.0 Suicide scrapes the social network's pages, which is a violation of its terms of service. "Facebook provides the ability for people who no longer want to use the site to either deactivate their account or delete it completely. Web 2.0 Suicide Machine collects log-in credentials and scrapes Facebook pages, which are violations of our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities," said the company in a statement. Facebook says it is deciding whether or not to take further action.

A similar service, called Seppukoo (a play on the Japanese word for suicide) garnered a full-throated nasty-gram from a Facebook attorney, who alleged that the seemingly harmless service violated multiple rules of the social network's terms of service or, as Facebook refers to it, "Rights and Responsibilities."

While services like Seppukoo and Web 2.0 Suicide Machine may be violating the letter of Facebook's rules, it may not be violating the spirit of them. Screen scraping, which is prohibited by Google, Yahoo and others, as well, is considered a problem when third-parties republish the scraped data onto another site. That doesn't appear to be the case with these services at all.

Rather, Facebook's issue seems to have a lot more to do with the company's bottom line. Anything that makes it easy for Facebook users to extract themselves from the social network is a serious revenue hazard to the sprawling giant, which is preparing for what is likely to be one of the hottest initial public offerings in 2010. Reports that MySpace and Twitter are blocking the service have not surfaced. (I'd try to verify them using the service but I don't want to wipe out my Web 2.0 presence, thank you).

Who Really Owns Your Information?

The battle highlights an issue that has troubled privacy advocates since the dawn of social media, namely, who actually owns your data and what reasonable limits can social media companies put on how people choose to use or not use their data. In February 2009, after a change in Facebook's terms of service caused concerns over data ownership, CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained in a blog post that it was very difficult for Facebook to delete all of a user's data because the data was also embedded in accounts of many others with whom the user had interacted.

However, that doesn't seem to be the case with the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine and other similar applications. Hundreds of Facebook applications interact with external Web properties and enact changes to user profiles, status and other information. Yet, most of these applications don't actually encourage users to cancel their Facebook accounts like Web 2.0 Suicide Machine does. Canceling one's Facebook account should be an available option just as it is an available option for every other reputable Web-based service.

All of this, of course, is something of a tempest in a teapot. Facebook has over 350 million users so losing 50,000 of them in 2009 amounts to a slippage of less than .005%. And it's highly unlikely that any significant number of users would cancel in the near future. More likely, however, is that Facebook wants to erect barriers to other social media services that want to acquire Facebook's users.

Facebook's Connect service has made it much easier to sign-up for other types of social media products or register on blogs or Web sites with a single click. As a result, Connect is now viewed by many venture capitalists as the true killer application in Facebook's arsenal.

One can hardly blame Facebook for trying to keep its customers. Whether Facebook's claims will stand up in court -- should the Web 2.0 Suicide Dispute go there -- is another matter entirely. From a technical standpoint, Facebook could engage in a game of whack-a-mole as the Web 2.0 Suicide crew tries to circumvent its blocking efforts. But ultimately the outcome of this dispute will address a more basic question: Should social networks like Facebook be allowed to make it next to impossible to leave them and take your information with you when you go?
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