Thu, Jul 26, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Mark Zuckerberg accused of stealing the idea for Facebook

THE OBSERVER , LONDON

background

The Facebook story began when Zuckerberg, the son of a dentist from New York state, enrolled at Harvard in 2002 to study psychology and quickly gained a reputation as an Internet prodigy. One of his first projects was Facemash, onto which he uploaded pictures of students from their ID cards, two per Web page, and invited fellow students to vote on which was the more attractive. More than 22,000 votes were recorded, but then Harvard blocked Zuckerberg's Internet access after receiving complaints that the site was offensive.

Harvard's administrative board summoned Zuckerberg to a disciplinary hearing but he escaped without punishment, later celebrating with a bottle of champagne.

According to a profile in the New Yorker magazine, three older students at Harvard learned of Zuckerberg's prowess and invited him to write computer code for a new site they were planning. The Winklevoss brothers and Narendra based their idea on existing social networking Web sites that allowed members to post personal details and link to other members. By late 2003 they had designed a prototype, known as HarvardConnection, and approached Zuckerberg to help them to complete it.

Tyler Winklevoss told the New Yorker: "We met Mark, and we talked to him and we thought, `This guy seems like a winner.'"

Zuckerberg began working on HarvardConnection in November 2003. But it was not his only assignment. Harvard had been planning to put its facebook online so students could learn more about each other. Zuckerberg decided to take on that task as well.

With immaculate self-assurance, he said at the time: "I think it's kind of silly that it would take the university a couple of years to get around to it. I can do it better than they can, and I can do it in a week."

Thefacebook.com went live on Feb. 4, 2004, and within 24 hours more than 1,200 students had registered. By the end of February, about three-quarters of undergraduates had created a profile, consisting of a picture and details such as the user's major, club memberships, favorite films and choice quotations. There was a search box to look up others' profiles and a "poking" button to make contact -- now one of the most famous features on Facebook.

By the end of the month it had launched at Columbia, Yale and Stanford universities, again taking each campus by storm, but maintaining an intimacy that many still regard as the secret of its success.

With two colleagues, Zuckerberg worked over the summer to build up a quarter of a million users. He decided to drop out of Harvard and moved to Palo Alto in Silicon Valley, met local venture capitalists and attracted millions of dollars of investment.

Then a cloud appeared on the horizon. In September 2004 the Winklevoss brothers and Narendra filed allegations with a federal court that Zuckerberg stole their idea and worked to drag out their site's launch so that he could complete Facebook first.

He was not paid to do the work, they said, but he was a full member of their team and would have reaped any future rewards. In total they made nine claims, including copyright infringement, misappropriation of trade secrets and breach of contract.

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