Page last updated at 01:06 GMT, Saturday, 31 May 2008 02:06 UK

Facebook 'violates privacy laws'

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

The Facebook logo is reflected in a human eye
Facebook says it plans to "set the record straight"

A Canadian privacy group has filed a complaint against the social networking site Facebook accusing it of violating privacy laws.

The Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic has listed 22 separate breaches of privacy law in its country.

Clinic director Phillipa Lawson told the BBC that, with more than seven million users in Canada, "Facebook needs to be held publicly accountable".

Facebook rejects the charge, claiming some of the highest standards around.

The complaint, filed with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, states that Facebook collects sensitive information about its users and shares it without their permission.

It goes on to say that the company does not alert users about how that information is being used and does not adequately destroy user data after accounts are closed.

Minefield

"Social networking online is a growing phenomenon," said Ms Lawson.

"It is proving to be a tremendous tool for community-building and social change, but at the same time, a minefield of privacy invasion.

"We chose to focus on Facebook because it is the most popular social networking site in Canada and because it appeals to young teens who may not appreciate the risks involved in exposing their personal details online."

The 35-page action was lodged after students at the clinic analysed the company's policies and practices as part of a course this past winter and identified specific practices that appeared to violate the Canadian Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (Pipeda).

Harley Finkelstein, 24 and a Facebook user for the past three years, told the BBC:

"A great percentage of Canadians using Facebook are aged between 14 and 25 and that raises vulnerability issues.

"Some 14-year-old kid might not know that privacy settings exist or how to take advantage of them or appreciate the ramifications of having their private information disclosed to third parties."

'Industry leading controls'

In a statement, Facebook said: "We pride ourselves on the industry leading controls we offer users over their private information. We believe that this is an important reason that nearly 40% of Canadians on the internet use our service.

"We've reviewed the complaint and found it has serious factual errors, most notably its neglect of the fact that almost all Facebook data is willingly shared by users."

But Mr Finkelstein disagrees. "Our investigation found that this is not entirely true," he said. "For example, even if you select the strongest privacy settings, your information may be shared more widely if your Facebook Friends have lower privacy settings.

"As well, if you add a third-party application offered on Facebook, you have no choice but to let the application developer access all your information even if they don't need it."

"We're concerned that Facebook is deceiving its users," said newly signed-up Facebook user Lisa Feinberg, another law student behind the complaint.

"Facebook promotes itself as a social utility, but it's also involved in commercial activities like targeted advertising. Facebook users need to know that when they're signing up to Facebook, they're signing up to share their information with advertisers."

Publicly accountable

The Canadian Privacy Commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, has a year to act on the CIPPC's complaint. The commissioner's office focuses on negotiation to resolve privacy disputes, but it can seek court injunctions if that fails to resolve the issues.

Ms Lawson told the BBC the clinic's reasons for going after Facebook publicly were because past issues they have tried to discuss with the company went nowhere:

"We don't see the point in going down that route again.

"Our experience is it gets dragged out and they might make a few changes but they are making representations about their privacy controls and they need to be held accountable. That would be difficult if we did it through private conversations."

Facebook said: "We look forward to working with Commissioner Stoddart to set the record straight and will continue our ongoing efforts to educate users and the public around privacy controls on Facebook, including a brochure and video project we have completed with Ontario information and privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian."

Shot across bows

Facebook has been accused of crossing the line over privacy issues in the past.

Earlier this year, however, the Silicon Valley start-up introduced new tools it said would let users have greater control over their privacy, such as letting only certain groups of friends see their photos and other personal information.

The director of the CIPPC sees their complaint as a shot across the bows of all social networking sites.

Ms Lawson told the BBC the only reason they are focusing on Facebook at the moment is because they did not have the time or resources to look at others:

"They are all suspect. Facebook is the most popular site in Canada and so that is why we looked at it particular but I am hoping to be able to do an analysis of MySpace later this year."


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