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Facebook Embroiled in Canadian Privacy Controversy

Facebook Embroiled in Canadian Privacy Controversy

A Canadian public interest group is on the warpath against Facebook, complaining that the social networking site hands out member data for profit motives and is not up front about how it's using their personal information. Facebook maintains members willingly share their information, but whether members really know they're doing so is at the heart of the dispute.

By Lisa Klink
06/02/08 2:44 PM PT

The Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) has accused Facebook, a popular social networking site, of violating Canadian privacy laws.

In a 36-page complaint submitted to the Canadian Privacy Commissioner, the CIPPIC outlines 22 separate alleged violations against Facebook. The organization claims that it failed to disclose to members how their personal information is released to third parties for advertising and other profit-making activities. It also alleges that Facebook failed to obtain permission from members to disclose their personal information for such uses.

"We take all complaints seriously, and therefore we are launching a full investigation under the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA)," Ann-Marie Hayden, director of communication for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, told the E-Commerce Times.

Facebook Responds

The complaint misinterprets PIPEDA in a manner that would effectively forbid voluntary online sharing of information, and it ignores key elements of Facebook's privacy policy and architecture, according to Facebook.

"We pride ourselves on the industry-leading controls we offer users over their personal information," Facebook spokesperson Malorie Lucich told the E-Commerce Times. "We believe that this is an important reason that nearly 40 percent of Canadians on the Internet use our service."

The complaint has serious factual errors, according to Facebook -- most notably its neglect of the fact that its users willingly share almost all the data in question.

"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," Lucich said.

Sharing By Default

"Although Facebook has taken steps to allow for more control over sharing one's information on the site, its default settings are for sharing, in most cases," said Jordan Plener, a law student working on the complaint.

"Changing those settings requires a high level of aptitude and experience with the site," Plener noted. "We believe that many Facebook users, especially young people, don't appreciate the extent to which their often-sensitive personal information is being shared beyond their social circle."

Canadian law states that personal information such as a person's address or birth date cannot be released to third parties without obtaining a member's express consent. Facebook members must manually change their settings to keep personal information private.

According to Canadian law, Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart has up to one year to investigate the complaint and make recommendations.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner plans to launch a Web site on Wednesday to educate youth about privacy on the Internet, Hayden said.

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