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Saturday, September 21, 2013

Today’s Scuttlebot: Twitter’s Fibs and a Pinterest Baby Step

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Users Sue LinkedIn Over Harvesting of E-Mail Addresses

Four LinkedIn users have filed a lawsuit accusing the business-oriented social network of accessing their e-mail accounts without permission, harvesting the addresses of their contacts and spamming those people with repeated invitations to join the service.

In their most explosive claim, the plaintiffs say that LinkedIn is “breaking into” external e-mail accounts, like Gmail or Yahoo Mail, by pretending to be the account owner, although the legal complaint offers no details about that assertion. Larry Russ, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, declined to comment beyond the suit.

The lawsuit, which is seeking damages on behalf of all LinkedIn users, revives a longstanding issue about the service: Does LinkedIn adequately inform its users about how it uses sensitive information, including e-mail addresses of everyone they know, and get their consent to do so?

As the lawsuit puts it:

As a part of its effort to acquire new users, Linkedln sends multiple e-mails endorsing its products, services and brand to potential new users. In an effort to optimize the efficiency of this marketing strategy, Linkedln sends these ”endorsement e-mails” to the list of e-mail addresses obtained without its existing users’ express consent and, to further enhance the effectiveness of this particular marketing campaign, these endorsement e-mails contain the name and likeness of those existing users from whom Linkedln surreptitiously obtained the list of e-mail addresses.

LinkedIn has always maintained that it gets full consent of its users before reaching out to any of their contacts. And the company reiterated that position in a statement in response to the lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in San Jose, Calif., on Tuesday by the Los Angeles law firm Russ August & Kabat.

“LinkedIn is committed to putting our members first, which includes being transparent about how we protect and utilize our members’ data,” the company said. “We believe that the legal claims in this lawsuit are without merit, and we intend to fight it vigorously.”

Regardless of the claims in the lawsuit, there is no doubt that LinkedIn makes it awfully easy for you to send an invitation to connect to everyone you have ever e-mailed and much harder to revoke that permission.

When you sign up for the service, or want to add contacts, LinkedIn prompts you to import the e-mail addresses of potential contacts from your e-mail accounts, like Gmail, Yahoo Mail or Microsoft Outlook. The lawsuit says LinkedIn does this without seeking the e-mail passwords, suggesting that LinkedIn is hacking into accounts. Under LinkedIn’s normal procedures, it asks users for permission to access each account, though e-mail passwords may not be required if a user is already logged into the e-mail account.

Once those addresses are imported, LinkedIn asks you for permission to contact them on your behalf.

And here we get to the crux of why LinkedIn might be viewed as spamming: By default, LinkedIn wants to invite every one of those people to connect with you on the service.

Instead of asking you to opt in by checking off which specific contacts you want to invite, LinkedIn requires you to opt out by unchecking the “select all” button. If you are not careful, hundreds of invitations can go out â€" no second thoughts or cooling-off period provided.

In fact, once the authorization is given, LinkedIn will e-mail your contacts several times asking them to join the service or connect to you. (You can withdraw an unaccepted invitation once it is sent, but it is a tedious process.)

Moreover, even if you don’t invite some or all of those imported names to connect with you, LinkedIn saves the information for various purposes, including prompting you later to add the people as connections.

Just how vast is this? I tried importing contacts from my Yahoo Mail account. LinkedIn found 615 people who were on LinkedIn that I wasn’t already connected to. And it found another 709 contacts who didn’t use LinkedIn â€" a group that is especially valuable to the company, since an invitation from a current user might prompt them to join.

I aborted the import process to avoid spamming all of those people, but it’s not hard to see how someone new to the service could accidentally send an invitation to everyone they know, including casual acquaintances and people they would rather not connect with ever again.

LinkedIn had 238 million users worldwide at the end of June, up 37 percent from the second quarter of 2012. It relies heavily on user referrals for that sizzling growth, which has also sent its stock price into the stratosphere.

Such growth by referral is common to social networks, games and mobile applications, though sometimes they cross the line into what many of their users would consider spamming. For example, the Path social network got into trouble for such mass mailing earlier this year, prompting Facebook to restrict it from accessing its users’ accounts.

The lawsuit, and numerous complaints on LinkedIn’s own message boards, suggest that the company is treading dangerously. As one user quoted in the lawsuit put it in a post on LinkedIn:

Accessing my contacts so that I can see who I’d like to connect with is one thing. Spamming my entire contact database of everyone I’ve ever e-mailed is definitely black hat tactics at growing users. This included people I know, don’t know, e-mail addresses from people off Craigslist, even mailing lists received an “invite to connect” from me today. I did not click on “invite all.” In fact, I clicked on “skip this step.” Very disappointing.

The legal process will sort out whether LinkedIn is getting adequate consent from its users. But legalities aside, if many users believe that the company is abusing sensitive personal information like e-mail contacts, it risks tarnishing its brand and business.

LinkedIn’s mission includes establishing itself as the premier site for making and maintaining business connections, and trust is the foundation of many lucrative services it wants to offer, from job-hunting help to industry news.

Reporter Denies Writing Article That Linked Syrian Rebels to Chemical Attack

Three weeks after an obscure Internet news service claimed that Syrian rebels had admitted responsibility for the deadly chemical attack outside Damascus in August, a veteran foreign correspondent whose name and reputation lent credibility to the story has denied writing the article.

The journalist, Dale Gavlak, is an American freelancer based in Jordan whose work has been published frequently by The Associated Press. In a statement sent first to the British blogger Eliot Higgins, who writes the highly-regarded Brown Moses blog, Ms. Gavlak insisted that her byline should never have been attached to the article, which was published on the Web site MintPress News on Aug. 29 under the headline, “Syrians in Ghouta Claim Saudi-Supplied Rebels Behind Chemical Attack.”

In a subsequent email to The Lede, Ms. Gavlak said that the article was based entirely on reporting by her friend Yahya Ababneh, a Jordanian journalist. Her only role, she said, was that she helped Mr. Ababneh translate his thoughts from Arabic to English. Ms. Gavlak added that MintPress, a start-up based in Minnesota, had refused “repeated demands” to remove her byline from the article, and she has now retained a lawyer to press her case.

While Ms. Gavlak said that she considers Mr. Ababneh to be “a reputable journalist,” she stressed in her note to The Lede: “There was no fact finding or reporting by me for the piece. I did not travel to Syria, so I cannot corroborate his account.” According to Ms. Gavlak, the 25-year-old editor-in-chief of MintPress, Mnar Muhawesh told her in writing: “We will not be removing your name from the byline as this is an existential issue for MintPress and an issue of credibility as this will appear as though we are lying.”

Ms. Muhawesh, who founded the Minnesota-based site last year, disputed Ms. Gavlak’s account in a written response to questions from The Lede. The MintPress editor claimed that Ms. Gavlak first pitched the story and then “wrote the article in its entirety” after conducting additional reporting from Jordan, which seemed to confirm what Mr. Ababneh was told in Syria, “that the Saudis have been supplying rebels with chemical weapons.”

She added: “We hold Dale Gavlak in the highest esteem and sympathize with her for the pressure she is receiving, but removing her name from the story would not be honest journalism and therefore, as stated before, we are not willing to remove her name from the article.”

Mr. Ababneh has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Since late August, the MintPress report has been repeatedly characterized as an admission of guilt made by Syrian rebels to an “Associated Press correspondent” in the state-owned Russian media and by bloggers who defend the Syrian government and oppose American military intervention. Ms. Gavlak told The Lede that she has been suspended by The A.P. as a result of the article.

The article’s central claim, however, that hundreds died outside Damascus on Aug. 21 because Syrian rebels carrying poison gas in tubes and a “huge gas bottle” had “handled the weapons improperly and set off the explosions,” seems to have been undermined by the findings of United Nations weapons experts who visited the site of the chemical attack. As my colleagues Rick Gladstone and C.J. Chivers explained, information gathered by the U.N. inspectors suggested that poison gas in shells with Cyrillic markings was fired into rebel-held areas on the outskirts of Damascus from the direction of Syrian government forces.

The dispute over the article has caused even some contributors to MintPress to ask questions about its mission and how it is financed. Steve Horn, an investigative reporter based in Madison, Wis. said in an email that he has decided to cut ties to the news site as a result of Ms. Gavlak’s objections to how her name was used. “I departed because I feel I was misled about the credibility of the article â€" which I trusted largely because Dale’s name was on it â€" and because of that, I no longer feel it’s a credible outlet. Frankly, I’m not sure it ever was.”

Ms. Muhawesh, who studied journalism at St. Cloud State and worked briefly as an intern at a local news station before launching MintPress, declined to name the “retired businesspeople” who provided the financial backing for her site in an interview with the similarly named local news site MinnPost. She did say, though, that her Jordanian-born father, Odeh Muhawesh, was an important adviser.

Mr. Muhawesh is chief executive of a software company and an adjunct professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas. In one of his lectures on theology available on YouTube, Mr. Muhawesh describes himself as a former Sunni Muslim who converted to the Shiite sect. His personal Web site begins with a clear affirmation of his Shiite beliefs in a statement that says true peace, “according to my faith, will occur when Imam Mahdi, the 12th Imam, will appear along with the second coming of Jesus the Messiah.”

Observers and participants in the Syrian conflict are often on the look-out for even the slightest hint of sectarian bias in reports on events there. As the uprising in Syria has descended into a brutal civil war, the fighting has increasingly divided the country along sectarian lines, pitting the Sunni Muslim majority, supported by their coreligionists in the Gulf states, against President Bashar al-Assad’s esoteric Alawite sect and the Shiite minority, which is allied with the Shiite rulers of Iran and their proxy force in Lebanon, the Hezbollah militia.