Facebook sold you out, changed its mind, and now it’s getting sued

facebook sold you out changed its mind and now getting sued lawsuit fl
Back in 2008, Facebook was just beginning to solidify itself as the social network of our times. Microsoft had just partnered with the site, we were all extremely concerned about the state of Scrabulous (remember the anguish over losing that game?!), the profile page underwent its first big makeover (the Timeline of its time), and Facebook Connect launched to take over the Internet.

At the same time, more ominous changes were going on behind the scenes. Facebook partnered with a company called Profile Technology that created applications for social networks – and one of those applications was data crawler Profile Engine. It’s a people search engine that launched in 2007, claiming to be the “the world’s first dedicated search engine for Facebook.” Profile Technology was less forthcoming with their business model, which is alleged to involve data brokerage.

“The Profile Engine made it much easier to find your friends on Facebook and provided powerful new search tools for meeting new people, making friends, and dating,” its site says. “More than 10 million people created detailed searchable profiles on the Profile Engine so that others can find them more easily. It made it easier to find old friends and to make new ones.”

According to Profile Technology, an agreement made with Facebook in 2008 allowed the platform to have backend crawling access to Facebook’s data. The deal existed until 2010, when Facebook allegedly shut off access without warning. And now, Profile Technology is suing Facebook.

“Suddenly Facebook interfered with crawler access and told Profile Engine out of the blue that they were not authorized,” Profile Technology’s lawyer Ira P. Rothken tells me. “There have been discussions that were ongoing for a robust period of time and filing this lawsuit wasn’t done lightly, it was a last resort.” In addition to taking away Profile Engine’s ability to index its contents, Facebook also shut off the company’s Facebook apps, “essentially destroying their revenue stream,” says Rothken.

So why did Facebook do this? “That will be something we will be litigating in court,” says Rothken. “We certainly think, as we allege in the complaint, that Facebook acted in bad faith by interfering with crawler access and retaliating.”

While Profile Technology is fighting Facebook for backing out of an agreement as well as hurting its name and thus business relationships, there really isn’t any question here why Facebook terminated its access: Because it was scraping profiles and indexing them into its own site, thus creating other profiles people didn’t even know existed while also making it extremely difficult to delete that information from Profile Engine’s database. A quick search for “Profile Engine” brings up nothing but complaints:

“Profile Engine stole all my info and friends’ info. Used it to create a profile of mine which I’m not able to claim. Zero answer upon request. I’m sure it is a fake site. All my friends, interests, and locations are visible.” [via]

“I deleted my Facebook account months ago yet this morning I found the profile I deleted on some website I never heard of before called Profile Engine! I tried to delete this account… but it won’t let me. This is what it says on their ‘help’ page: ‘You probably don’t really want to delete your profile. It is much better to remove unwanted information from your profile using the Settings page… or by leaving any groups which no longer apply to you.’” [via]

“’Even though I had canceled my Facebook account, my information is still up there, thanks to [Profile Engine]. And I still have a Web footprint that I can’t erase. Anyone who types in my name sees my friends and family.” [via]

profile engine complaintThis criticism is all deserved. Sites like Profile Engine are essentially personal data hoarders that collect what they can from the likes of Facebook and then make it extremely difficult for you to ever get rid of that info. Even if you delete all your Facebook Photos or Friends or your account altogether, it’s all going to remain sitting over on Profile Engine.

Of course, Profile Engine only has this data in the first place because it paid Facebook for it. “For several years, the Profile Technology search engine was highly popular,” the complaint reads. “Over 400 million profiles were aggregated, along with 15 billion ‘friendship’ connections between people, and three billion ‘likes,’ and group memberships. Purchase Inquiries from third parties showed a market value of several million dollars.”

Opinion regarding whether Profile Technology has a case is divided. “I don’t think Profile Technology has a strong case here because Facebook’s Terms govern,” says Abine privacy analyst and attorney Sarah Downey. “If [Facebook] doesn’t like how a third party like Profile Technology is using its platform, it can kick that third party off.”

She does point out that Profile Technology’s defamation claims could hold some merit. “Saying that a product is spammy or unsafe, especially when you have the power and visibility that Facebook does, may very well cause severe harm to a company’s reputation.”

Downey and startup lawyer Randolph Adler both point out that the entire complaint can be traced back to an agreement formed between Profile Technology and a single Facebook employee. “Whether this case has any legs here depends on the contract itself, and the complaint says it was partially written and partially implied through conduct,” Adler tells me. “It would also matter whether the one Facebook representative had the actual authority to enter into a contract.”

“What people don’t realize is that a contract can be verbal or created through email. Is that best practice? Absolutely not.”

Facebook public policy and communications manager Andrew Noyes tells me, “We believe the lawsuit is without merit and will defend ourselves vigorously,” but declined to talk specifics about the agreement between Facebook and Profile Technology.

But we do know this: Around 2009, Facebook stopped allowing Google to index its contents, as it wanted to compete with the search engine. Back in 2007, Facebook implemented Public Search Listings, so its period of time being search engine-friendly was fairly short-lived.

Even so, it looks like that small window is coming back to haunt Facebook, even if just to remind us that for awhile, Facebook made no bones about selling off our information. Even if the social network isn’t found guilty on all counts, it could very well have to make some redress to Profile Technology for terminating a contact without due warning between the two. If Facebook’s assertions that Profile Engine is “spammy” and “unsafe” are accurate, users should be relieved that Facebook has cut off its access – but it’s less than reassuring that a network that holds increasing amounts of your data (now including your purchasing history information) was involved in selling it off less than five years ago.

[Image courtesy of AHMAD FAIZAL YAHYA/Shutterstock.com]

This article has been updated to reflect the following changes: Profile Technology disputes the claim that they are a data brokerage.   

Emerging Tech

How 3D printing has changed the world of prosthetic limbs forever

When he was 13 years old, Christophe Debard had his leg amputated. Here in 2019, Debard's Print My Leg startup helps others to create 3D-printed prostheses. Welcome to a growing revolution!
Emerging Tech

Burgers are just the beginning: Embracing the future of lab-grown everything

You’ve almost certainly heard of the 'farm to fork' movement, but what about 'lab to table'? Welcome to the fast-evolving world of lab-grown meat. Is this the future of food as we know it?
Smart Home

From the kitchen to the bedroom, here are the best Alexa tips and tricks

Amazon's voice assistant Alexa has plenty of neat skills. So many, in fact, it seems like new ones appear every day. We've rounded up the top Echo tips and tricks to help you get the most out of your virtual assistant.
Gaming

10 Nintendo Switch tips and tricks to get the most out of your hybrid console

Have a new Nintendo Switch? Awesome! It's a great console from the moment you turn it on, but owners can make it even better by using a few simple tips and tricks. Here's what every Switch owner should know.
Social Media

How to download Instagram Stories on iOS, Android, and desktop

Curious about how to save someone's Instagram Story to your phone? Lucky for you, it can be done -- but it does take a few extra steps. Here's what you need to know to save Instagram Stories on both iOS and Android.
Social Media

Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp went down worldwide for 2 hours this morning

Chaos erupted on the internet this morning, as Facebook, Instagram, and Whatsapp all went down from 6:30 a.m. to approximately 9 a.m. Thousands of users were unable to access the sites or send or receive Whatsapp messages.
Mobile

Skype screen sharing for mobile will let you share your swipes on dating apps

Skype is prepping the launch of screen sharing for mobile so you can share your swipes on dating apps, shop with buddies, or, perhaps, show a PowerPoint presentation to coworkers. It's in beta just now, but anyone can try it.
Social Media

Facebook toys with mixing Stories and News Feed into one swipeable carousel

Facebook's News Feed could look a lot like Stories if a prototype the social media giant is working on rolls out to users. The design change mixes Stories and News Feed posts into a full-screen slideshow that users swipe left to navigate.
Social Media

No more moon showers as Facebook Messenger’s dark mode gets official rollout

Facebook Messenger launched a dark mode last month, but to activate it you had to message the crescent moon to someone. Now it's been rolled out officially, and it can be accessed in a far more sensible way — via settings.
News

Twitter has revealed a launch date for its handy hide replies features

Twitter has revealed a launch date for a feature that lets users hide replies to their tweets. The hope is that it will help the original poster filter out offensive or irrelevant content from conversation threads.
Smart Home

Oh, Zuck, no! Facebook rumored to be creating a voice assistant to rival Alexa

Facebook hasn't been a big player in the smart speaker market, but that may be changing: The social media giant is reportedly working on a digital assistant to compete against Alexa and others.
Social Media

Facebook says it unintentionally uploaded email contacts of 1.5 million users

Facebook says that over the last two years it unintentionally uploaded the email contacts of 1.5 million users as they signed up to the social networking service. The process has ended and the email addresses are being deleted.
Digital Trends Live

Digital Trends Live: Facebook data security, Ubisoft helps Notre Dame, and more

Join DT Live as we discuss Facebook security issues, Ubisoft's plan to help rebuild Notre Dame, and more. We are also joined by Emily Teteut of Snap the Gap, Jennifer Sendrow of New York Public Radio, and DJ and producer Zeke Thomas.
Photography

After controversial video, China bans ‘Leica’ on social media

A video that referenced Tiananmen Square got the name of the camera company Leica banned from the social media platform Weibo. Leica says the video wasn't an officially sanctioned promotion.