Did Facebook hijack a developer’s app for its own purposes?

Manifest Destiny

Manifest Destiny depicted in the 1872 painting "American Progress"

Updated. With a healthy dose of fanfare, last week Facebook teamed up with Skype  to launch a new video-calling application, hosted at facebook.com/videocalling. But now a company called Samuday Web Technologies says it had that domain first — and Samuday’s CEO says that his company’s video chat app was unceremoniously kicked off Facebook in a modern-day case of Manifest Destiny, so that Facebook could clear the way for its own feature.

According to Nimit Kumar, his company’s uniRow video-calling application ran within Facebook at the facebook.com/videocalling URL starting in December of 2010. The app was moderately successful, although not hugely popular: Kumar says that it amassed 22,000 users, more than a third of whom were active, and the app managed to attract 4,500 likes and an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

But on April 7, Samuday’s video-calling app was deleted by Facebook without any warning whatsoever, Kumar says. The company immediately reached out to Facebook to try to understand why the action was taken, and received a vague form letter about how the app violated Facebook’s policies. Since the uniRow video-calling app for Facebook was the work of two developers, and Samuday has a host of other products, the company eventually decided against working on a relaunch.

But when Facebook launched its own video app at uniRow’s old URL last week, Kumar became suspicious about the reason his app was really kicked off of the platform. He wrote in a blog entry posted on July 8:

The question to ask is what happened around April 7th (exactly 3 months before the launch of Facebook-Skype Video Calling). It is clear that when the plan for rolling out their application was decided, Facebook wanted to use the phrase “Video Calling” and therefore wanted the URL. Instead of communicating this to the page (and application) owners, it went ahead and disabled the application. This is grossly undemocratic and probably illegal (we are looking into this aspect). We tried our best to get the application reinstated, but did not succeed.

In an email, Kumar told me that he is discussing the possibility of legal action with several lawyers: “They have been supportive thus far, but being a young (bootstrapped) startup, we are short of resources.” Samuday has not had any contact with Facebook since the Skype video-calling app launched, he said.

This is not the only time Facebook has gotten on a developer’s bad side. The company caught a lot of flack last month when it enacted a new spam-control policy that apparently cut a number of legitimate applications. But Facebook seems keen to make amends for its mistakes: The social networking company responded swiftly to the spam control outcry, and recently rolled out a softened policy reflecting that it had indeed heard the developer community’s complaints. But it’s difficult to see exactly how Facebook could make it up to Samuday, since the company’s former URL is taken up by Facebook’s own blockbuster app.

I’ve reached out to Facebook’s policy head Barry Schnitt for comment on Samuday’s claims, and he said in an email that his team is looking into the issue. I’ll update this post with any response we receive.

Update: A Facebook spokesperson emailed Wednesday morning with the following statement: “The app was disabled by an automated system for a policy violation that was not related to the URL of the app. The developer’s appeal was manually reviewed; the violation was confirmed, and the appeal was denied. Two months after the initial disabling of the app, Facebook acquired the URL.”

Image of John Gast’s depiction of Manifest Destiny from the 1872 painting “American Progress” courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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