Facebook announced that it has filed a lawsuit in the US against two companies for violating its terms of service by engaging in data harvesting, or data scraping. One of the two is Israel’s high tech startup BrandTotal.
Facebook did not disclose the details of its lawsuit.
BrandTotal has yet to respond.
BrandTotal calls itself a real time competitive intelligence platform which is designed to give media, insights, and analytics teams full visibility into their competition’s social media strategy. It promises its customers that they will learn all about their competitors’ paid social media campaigns and be better able to monitor the success of their own campaigns. If Facebook’s accusation is true, then it certainly explains how, at least in part, BrandTotal gets such information.
“The actions of BrandTotal Ltd., an Israeli-based company, and Unimania Inc., incorporated in Delaware, violate our Terms of Service and we are pursuing legal action to protect our users,” the company said in a statement.
“This case is the latest example of our actions to disrupt and enforce against companies that scrape user data, as well as those who enable them.”
So what exactly is data scraping anyway? Well as you must know by now, free services offered by Facebook and Google are not exactly free. They watch your every move and collect data about what you like and are interested in. They even make a profile about your political and religious preferences. Facebook learns all this from the personal data that you freely give it by filling in all of you’re the questions about where you went to school or what kinds of movies and music that you like. Its Instagram follows whatever you follow. So if you look at specific celebrities’ accounts all the time then Instagram will know what you like.
Google knows all this about you from your Google searches. Even if you do not have a Google account it sees what searches come from your IP. So the company’s algorithms use this to develop a profile about you. Its YouTube does the same thing.
Now this can be a good thing because they now know what to suggest to you. YouTube offers you lists of videos to watch based on your previous activity. Google offers you search terms to choose from as you type in the words like baseball or Sweden.
And how do they make so much money offer these free services? They use all of this information to tailor advertisements for each and every user. The companies know so much about you that they can tell potential advertisers that their message is not just being seen by all of the people who watch a certain TV show, but only by the people who really like their kind of product.
But that’s not all. They also sell your information to third parties. Ever wonder why when you made a search for a new bed or an oven you then saw ads for such things come up on Facebook or your Instagram feed. And, of course, web browsers like Google’s Chrome know what ads to place on whatever website you go to. Your favorite news site does not place the same ad on a given page to be seen by all visitors like a print newspaper must do.
So all of this information is worth a hell of a lot of money.
Now imagine if you could find a way to copy this information for your own use without paying Google or Facebook for it. That is Data Scraping.
Facebook maintains that BrandTotal did this through the use of their browser extensions. It has stated that “the browser extensions used automated programs to scrape their name, user ID, gender, date of birth, relationship status, location information, and other information related to their accounts. The defendants’ extensions sent the scraped data to a server shared by BrandTotal and Unimania.”
So not only did the company allegedly steal information from Facebook, but if the charges are true then it also may have violated the privacy of the people who used its browser extensions. There are laws against this so it could theoretically lead to criminal charges.