Facebook Lawsuit Heats Up Over Control of User Data

08/03/2009 / Molly Eichten and *Laura Bartlow

A battle has ensued in a California court over the control of user-owned data (i.e., content) on social networking sites. Power.com, an aggregating service that permits users to log into multiple social networking sites at one time, filed a countersuit against Facebook on July 9, 2009. Power.com seeks to resolve issues of control and ownership of user data on social networking sites, and asserts that Facebook is illegally restricting data that users create.

The countersuit is a response to a lawsuit Facebook initiated against Power.com in January, which alleged that Power.com violated Facebook's Terms of Service by storing user credentials and accessing user data. Power.com now accuses Facebook of unfair competition and restraint of trade, alleging that Facebook prevents third party services - like Power.com - from accessing user data despite having the user's permission to do so.

The Facebook Terms of Service expressly state that it asserts no ownership of user data. Therefore, Power.com wants Facebook to give users complete control of their own data, including the ability to port the data into other sites and services. Power.com argues that because users own the data they enter on social networking sites - data such as photos, text, profiles, and video - Facebook may not restrict users from access to that data. Facebook claims it is protecting the privacy and security of user data by restricting access.

For many, the data portability battle evokes the past controversy over portability of cell phone numbers, when cell phone companies had refused to permit customers to take their number with them to a new carrier. Such refusal effectively prevented customers from switching to competitors. Here, Power.com argues, users have invested time in building data on Facebook and are unlawfully tied to the Facebook application. Despite the parallels, the California court may not regard cell phone numbers and social networking data in the same way.

If Power.com gets its way, the case may be a step towards giving all Internet users complete ownership and control over their own user-generated data.

-- Originally published in Larkin Hoffman's IP/Tech Buzz.

*Laura Bartlow is a J.D. candidate at William Mitchell College of Law and is a 2009 summer law clerk at Larkin Hoffman.