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ConnectU and Thefacebook face off

Discovery phase in lawsuit begins this month, but trial uncertain

By
Monday, March 7, 2005

Will facebook-messaging and compulsive profile-checking soon become activities of the past? A lawsuit filed by ConnectU.com, a social networking Web site for college students, has put Thefacebook.com on the line – the founders of ConnectU claim that Mark Zuckerberg, a Harvard sophomore and the mastermind behind Thefacebook, stole the technology for Thefacebook while working for ConnectU in late 2003.

The lawsuit’s discovery period, when both sides request pertinent information and documents, will begin this month. If there is to be a trial, it will happen within the next two years. Chris Hughes, Thefacebook’s co-founder and spokesman, said he was skeptical the case would go to court. Over 90 percent of cases like this one never go to trial, he said.

Thefacebook.com is an online directory that connects people through social networks at 431 colleges and universities in the United States, the U.K. and Canada, allowing students to view other students’ photos, hobbies, political views and dating preferences. Current membership exceeds 2 million users and the current growth rate is estimated at 10,000 new members per day, according to Hughes.

In a face-to-face comparison, ConnectU.com is almost identical to Thefacebook.com, offering many of the same features.

ConnectU was founded by a group of recent Harvard graduates, who allege that Zuckerberg stole the exact source code and business model from them while working for ConnectU before the site was launched.

After developing the idea for ConnectU, which was then called HarvardConnection, founders Divya Narendra, Cameron Winklevoss and Tyler Winklevoss hired Zuckerberg to work as a programmer for their site, according to a complaint filed Sept. 2, 2004, in Massachusetts District Court.

The ConnectU creators claim that they had an oral contract with Zuckerberg, who signed on to the project in late 2003 but was not paid. By early 2004, Zuckerberg was purportedly neglecting his responsibilities as programmer, thus delaying ConnectU’s launch. Then, in February 2004, he launched Thefacebook.com. ConnectU was launched in May.

Since its launch at Brown in April 2004, Thefacebook has risen to become one of the most popular procrastination methods on campus, as well as a reference tool and a means for communication. “Thefacebook has really helped me keep in touch with all my friends from high school,” said Christine Chen ’08.

“I use the Thefacebook to get the phone numbers of people I need to contact for rehearsals and class projects,” said Katie Meister ’06.

Since its inception, Thefacebook.com has dominated the online networking scene for college students, surpassing Friendster.com as the most popular online social directory. While ConnectU is available at many of the same schools as Thefacebook, ConnectU’s membership is only about 5 percent of Thefacebook’s, according to Hughes.

However, were Thefacebook forced to shut down, students would likely turn to other directory Websites like ConnectU, which now conveniently utilizes a data-import program called Social Butterfly Processing. Social Butterfly shortens the registration process for users who want to switch to ConnectU from other social networking sites by allowing new users to import profile information and friends lists from friendster.com and Thefacebook.

Narendra and the Winklevosses were furious when they saw Zuckerberg’s site and immediately requested via e-mail that he develop it no further, according to their complaint. Zuckerberg replied, denying any wrongdoing, and continued to expand the site.

The ConnectU creators brought their complaint to Harvard’s Administrative Board in spring 2004 but were told that it was beyond the body’s jurisdiction.

In an e-mail to The Herald, Hughes called ConnectU’s claims “absolutely unfounded.” He noted that HarvardConnection.com, the original version of ConnectU, was very different from Thefacebook – it was focused on dating, and was exclusively for Harvard students, whereas Thefacebook is more of a social networking site than a dating service. “Mark (Zuckerberg) did about six hours of work for a site that was much different than the current ConnectU,” Hughes wrote.

According to Hughes, who has never logged into ConnectU, “Thefacebook is much more widely known and more widely used because students think it a better service.”

Neither the founders of ConnectU nor their lawyers returned phone calls or e-mails last week.

Zuckerberg and Thefacebook team filed a counterclaim on Nov. 18, contending that ConnectU is abusing the legal system for its own ends.

Thefacebook estimates that the lawsuit is going to cost the company around $200,000 in defense costs. “It will be financially damaging,” Hughes said. Moreover, if ConnectU wins, Thefacebook may be forced to close and award its profits, gained from online advertising, to ConnectU. “The ConnectU boys want to shut us down, but I strongly doubt that will happen,” Hughes said.

When asked what he would do if Thefacebook shut down, Tom Ghiden ’08 said he would “fall into a serious depression.” Other enthusiasts said that they would be disappointed, since other sites like ConnectU don’t offer the same features and aren’t as easy to navigate.

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