Auto-Logging Into Facebook Could Get You Arrested

-Arrest Icon-Facebook is claiming that it is a criminal offense to use an add-on aggregation service that lets users access information from multiple social networking accounts. Power Ventures, creator of the social network aggregator Power.com is being sued by Facebook, who claims that their terms of service bans users from accessing their information through automatic means. Power.com’s motto is “all your friends in one place,” and the service allows users to log in to their accounts at sites like Twitter, LinkedIn, Orkut and Hi5 simultaneously so that friends, profiles, messages, postings and content from many locations can be seen all at once.

Facebook’s TOS explicitly states in section 3.2, “you will not collect users’ content or information, or otherwise access Facebook, using automated means (such as harvesting bots, robots, spiders, or scrapers) without our permission.” Also relied on in the case is section 3.5, which states “you will not solicit login information or access an account belonging to someone else.”

A terms of service violation is not in and of itself a criminal act of course; Facebook is further claiming that by using Power’s tool, users are accessing the social networking site “without permission,” which is a criminal violation under the California Penal Code Section 502(c) and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). Section 502 prohibits access to computers or information that the user has no permission to access, and the CFAA is the federal permutation of the same principle.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation filed an amicus brief in the case countering Facebook’s argument by saying that “merely providing a technology to assist a user in accessing his or her own data in a novel manner cannot and should not form the basis for criminal liability.” They argue that users are authorized to access their own Facebook information even if the technology used to access it is unauthorized.

It is feared that this may become a slippery slope whereby other websites could use the same argument to shut down competitors and stifle innovation. Also, the automatic login or password retention feature of most internet browsers might be considered problematic in Facebook’s eyes.

Arguments in the case are set to begin the first week in June, and until then Power.com has removed the option to log in to Facebook from its website. It will be interesting to see if similar auto-login sites such as Digsby are affected by the decision.