Thu, Jul 26, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Mark Zuckerberg accused of stealing the idea for Facebook


It could be described as a poke, but not a friendly one. For those who have not yet succumbed to Facebook, the latest craze on the Internet, a "poke" is an electronic greeting sent, for example, to an old friend from university. In the case of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who stands to make a fortune from the Web site if and when he sells it, the contact made by three of his former student colleagues represented an aggressive jab to the ribs.

Facebook has been described as the most sophisticated and powerful socializing device on the Internet, growing so rapidly -- with 150,000 new members every day -- that media mogul Rupert Murdoch, owner of rival MySpace, is said to be worried.

MySpace was bought by News Corp in 2005 for US$580 million, now regarded as a bargain. Facebook is expected to sell for more than double that, turning Zuckerberg, its 23-year-old creator, into the latest dotcom millionaire and darling of Silicon Valley.


But there is a glitch. Yesterday, at a federal court in Boston, Zuckerberg was accused of snatching the idea for Facebook from under the noses of three fellow students, who believe its wealth and influence should be theirs.

Cameron Winklevoss, his twin brother Tyler and their colleague, Divya Narendra, recruited Zuckerberg to their social networking site when they were all students at Harvard University. They now claim that he deliberately stalled its progress, stole the source code, design and business plan, then set up his own rival. Facebook sped away while their site, now called ConnectU, was still in Zuckerberg's traps.

"It's sort of a land grab," Tyler Winklevoss has said. "You feel robbed. The kids down the hall are using it, and you're thinking, `That's supposed to be us.' We're not there because one greedy kid cut us out."

At the first court hearing yesterday they were expected to ask a judge to shut down Facebook and transfer its assets to them, plus damages. At stake is a large slice of pride, one of the most coveted prizes of the Web 2.0 goldrush and potentially millions, or even billions, of dollars. Last week, Facebook signaled its ambitions by making its first acquisition, reportedly beating even Google to buy a Web-based operating system called Parakey and fueling bloggers' suspicions that Facebook could threaten Web diversity by sucking the best of it into one place.

Web 2.0 is the ambiguously defined revolution that has changed the way millions use the Internet, as fast broadband connections enable them to upload their own content and share it with friends and millions of strangers.

Facebook, a word barely known in most countries a year ago, refers to printed facebooks: the class directory at a US university containing photographs of each student along with their name, hometown and other personal details. It was one such facebook at Harvard that inspired the Web site that for millions seems to have become more addictive than YouTube or their own e-mail inbox.

Users enter their name and details about their career, education and interests. They are provided with a home page, or "profile," where they can store photographs and a "wall" -- an online message board. They can seek out friends and share content and are constantly updated with their friends' comments. Common interest groups can form around everything from people who share the same name to people who want to "throw a [virtual] sheep" at someone they like. Such is Internet humor.

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