BOSTON – The owners of a rival social networking Web site are trying to shut down Facebook.com, charging in a federal lawsuit that Facebook’s founder stole their ideas while they were students at Harvard.
The three founders of ConnectU say Mark Zuckerberg agreed to finish computer code for their site but repeatedly stalled and eventually created Facebook using their ideas.
The lawsuit’s allegations against Zuckerberg include fraud, copyright infringement and misappropriation of trade secrets. It asks the court to shutter Facebook and give control of the company and its assets to ConnectU’s founders.
Facebook has responded by asking a judge to dismiss the lawsuit.
Facebook started in 2004, a few months before ConnectU went online, and now has 31 million users, compared with about 70,000 users for ConnectU, based in Greenwich, Conn. Last year, Facebook turned down a $1 billion buyout offer from Yahoo Inc.
A spokeswoman for Palo Alto, Calif.-based Facebook declined to comment. But in court filings, Facebook’s attorneys say ConnectU has no evidence for “broad-brush allegations” against Zuckerberg, and deny he pilfered his ideas for Facebook from his fellow Harvard students.
“Each of them had different interests and activities,” they wrote. “Only one of them had an idea significant enough to build a great company. That one person was Mark Zuckerberg.”
Facebook and ConnectU connect college students and others online. Both allow users to post profiles with pictures, biographies and other personal information and create extended networks of people at their schools or jobs or with similar interests.
ConnectU originally filed suit in 2004, but it was dismissed on a technicality and immediately refiled. The lawsuit claims that in December 2002, ConnectU founders Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss – who are brothers – and Divya Narendra began to develop a social networking site for the Harvard community called Harvard Connection.
In November 2003, the three asked Zuckerberg to complete software and database work on the site. They repeatedly asked him to finish before they graduated in June 2004, and Zuckerberg assured them he was working hard to complete it, the lawsuit says.
“Such statements were false and Zuckerberg never intended to provide the code and instead intended to breach his promise … and intended to steal the idea for the Harvard Connection Web site, and in fact he did so,” the suit alleges.
Zuckerberg launched Thefacebook.com in February 2004. ConnectU started its Web site in May of that year. By beating ConnectU to the market, Facebook gained a huge advantage, the lawsuit claims.
ConnectU’s founders have written on their Web site about the “ups and downs” of their company history, including a programmer “who stole our ideas to create a competing site.”
“But we’ve been troopers,” they wrote. “At first we were devastated and climbed into a bottle of Jack Daniels for a bit, but eventually emerged with a bad headache and renewed optimism. We weren’t going to lie down and get walked over like this.”