Facebook and LinkedIn Block Apps TOS-Violating Browser Extension and Apps

Late last week, a Google Chrome browser extension called Facebook Friend Exporter received a flood of new interest as Google+ users looked for a way to import their Facebook friends into Google’s social network, Circles. However, since the app collects contact information from Facebook, it violate’s the site’s terms of service, and Facebook implemented a throttling mechanism that prevents it from scraping email addresses.

LinkedIn also blocked two Facebook professional networking apps: BranchOut for trying to profit from pulling in LinkedIn profile data into an enterprise recruiting search tool,and Monster’s BeKnown for sending promotional messages through LinkedIn’s messages API. These are the latest examples of long-running issues with platform owners and developers both trying to provide the same value to users and customers.

Facebook Prohibits Data Scrapers

The Facebook Friend Exporter was originally released by open source software developer, Mohamed Mansour, in November 2010. Similar to some other Facebook-altering browser extensions such as Better Facebook that violate the terms of service, the extension was ignored by Facebook until it received too much attention and was perceived as a threat to the company’s efforts to control core value, this time in the form of its user growth and retention.

Facebook Friend Exporter scrapes the email addresses and other contact info of a user’s friends, and allows them to be downloaded as a Google Contacts or .csv file that could then be imported into Gmail, allowing users to more easily recreate their Facebook social graph on Google Circles. This violates section 3.2 of the TOS that states “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.”

In a past spat with Google over data portability, Facebook has claimed that users don’t own the email addresses of friends, and therefore may not export them .The social graphs it holds for users are Facebook’s most valuable asset and its core advantage over Google+, so allowing these graphs to be scraped and imported into Circles represented a clear threat to Facebook.

Facebook Friend Exporter’s download site now says it has 22,414 users, with 22,092 installing the extension in the last week. This spike in usage and press about the extension alerted Facebook to it, leading it to alter its mobile site the email addresses of friends disappear from their profiles if a user’s account quickly views the profiles of more than five friends. This prevents the extension from scraping a user’s entire friend list.

Mansour claims a new version that circumvents Facebook’s blocking mechanism on the way. Users should install Facebook Friend Exporter at their own risk, as its usage could constitute a TOS violation that could lead a user’s account to be suspended.

Update: As our commenter Jan notes, scrapers of this nature also create data security risks for users. If scrapers like Facebook Friend Exporter was allowed, hackers who gain access to a user’s account could steal the email addresses of all their friends. Developer of such plugins could also be collecting any of the scraped email addresses. Therefore, blocking access to these types of scrapers is not only good for Facebook in a competitive sense, but it also protects users.

LinkedIn Moves Against Facebook-Based Competitors

Over the past month, professional networking Facebook app BranchOut saw a spike in usage grow it to 250,000 daily active users, and job posting site Monster.com launched its own Facebook app for professional networking called BeKnown. Both apps allowed users to import their work history and other profile data from LinkedIn, and BeKnown let users send invites via the LinkedIn messages API.

BranchOut plans to release a premium enterprise recruiting search tool on August 1st that would allow the company to charge recruiters to search for job candidates by BranchOut profile information, including that pulled from LinkedIn. This violates LinkedIn’s terms of service, which prohibit the licensing or reselling of access to LinkedIn data. Therefore, LinkedIn has blocked BranchOut’s ability to import profile data.