LinkedIn, WeCanDo.BIZ and cease & desist notices — is LinkedIn trying to stop data portability between social networks?

31/03/2009 at 3:44 pm 2 comments

Expect to hear a bit more about this subject over the next few days…

For some months our online business network has offered the ability for our users to import contacts and friends they have on other networks, including e-mail, so they can easily connect with people they know who are already using our site.  You’ll know this is fairly common practice.  LinkedIn uses such a tool itself to enable its users to check which of their e-mail contacts are using the service in order to establish an on-site connection.  It is has been pivotal to how LinkedIn has built its user base to 30 million — in fact, LinkedIn has only had a marketing department for the past 18 months; all growth before that was viral, helped, in no small part, by the contact import tool.  Many other socnets have the same facility, including MySpace, Facebook and Twitter and people inviting other people has been a key part of their growth too.

So you can imagine how much I’ve been smiling this morning that we’ve been issued a “cease and desist” letter from LinkedIn’s lawyers because we use the same type of tool to enable our users to fetch their LinkedIn contact to connect with them on our site.  I’ve attached two screenshots to show you how our tool compares to the same functions offered on the LinkedIn website.  It is near identical.  Yet in spite of them benefitting from such practices, they are demanding that we don’t.

LinkedIn's contact importer

Contact importer on the LinkedIn website

WeCanDo.BIZ's contacts importer

Contact importer on the WeCanDo.BIZ website

In fact, they may even use the same tool we use.  WeCanDo.BIZ uses a contact importer tool from a company called Octazen, which counts LinkedIn, Twitter, Xing, Hi5 and Friendfeed as clients.  The tool offers an ability to fetch webmail contacts, including LinkedIn contacts.  We do not access the third party webmail servers directly from our site, but make use of Octazen’s hosted import tool which communicates directly to webmail providers from its own servers after we’ve passed it user credentials over a secure connection.  The Octazen service works in the same way as the facility on LinkedIn’s own website (image above) to import contacts from Google Mail, in that it requests the username and password from the user to authorise access of the data — the login credentials are input straight into the Octazen tool from a webpage on our site, passed straight through to Octazen over a secure connection and not retained by WeCanDo.BIZ in any way.  This feature is only accessible to WeCanDo.BIZ users who have registered with our service and logged in to that protected webpage. We support exactly the same webmail services as LinkedIn, plus LinkedIn itself. However, unlike LinkedIn, we do not retain any e-mail addresses of contacts that are imported using the tool; when fetched, the user stipulates who they want to connect with on our site and all other data from the contact list are discarded.  By contract, LinkedIn retains this data.

Through initiatives like OpenID, OAuth, OpenSocial and Facebook Connect social networks are moving towards much greater portability of contacts.  Plaxo recently showed its use of Google’s “Google Contacts” initiative to enable Plaxo contact lists to be easily accessed from other social networks (they showed this with Google at the OpenID User Experience meeting that Facebook hosted a month or so back).  It’s an exciting move and we’ll soon be supporting OpenID, Facebook Connect and MySpaceID when we incorporate these identity methods into the WeCanDo.BIZ registration pages, so users can sign up for sales leads on our site using an existing socnet identity.  In many instances this will also provide a more elegant way of tying up your connections on WeCanDo.BIZ to match those on other social networks.

We have been watching what LinkedIn plans in this space though and in spite of making noises, we haven’t yet seen it add support for OpenID, Facebook Connect or anything else.  It’s also recently stopped LinkedIn Group managers from downloading details of members of the groups they run.  It is cutting back on the ability to extract connections from LinkedIn, just as the rest of the web is ripping the walls down and making it easier to take contacts with you to other sites.  Further, it continues to use the very tools to benefit itself which it is trying to stop us using — LinkedIn Connections beta is currently testing new methods for grabbing contacts from webmail, Outlook and others.  In all instances, any imported contacts are retained by LinkedIn, regardless of whether those imported contacts have a LinkedIn account or not.  This is massive hypocrisy; a reluctance to move the way of the Social Web while happily leeching peoples’ social graphs for its own benefit before selling that back to them as some wonderful networking tool. That LinkedIn is also building a database of non-members details is also likely to be of concern to those LinkedIn members who innocently provide the data from their address books; and those whose details now reside of LinkedIn’s servers without their knowledge.  LinkedIn’s policy of contact  retention opposes our own policy, which is consistent with the Data Protection Act 1998 and follows the Information Commissioner’s guidelines.

Contact import tools of this type are commonplace to enable a user of a social network to connect with users they already know from other sites.  Websites with such tools include MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Xing, Hi5 and Friendfeed.  What WeCanDo.BIZ does follows exactly the same patterns as all other websites in terms of the method of operation and the way the service is advertised on our site.  Quite why LinkedIn is so interested in the actions of a UK-based social network with some 11,000 members when there are many other larger companies doing the same thing, we are unsure.  But if they success in stopping us from using the contact importer, what does this mean to the myriad other sites that are doing the same thing?  Will it encourage Google or Microsoft to act to prevent contacts from their systems being ported to social networks?

We’d love to read your thoughts on this, so please add a comment.

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