Facebook faces accusations of 22 privacy violations

News by Richard Thurston

The social networking site has been hit by a legal complaint from Canada, which claims it has failed to gain users' permission to distribute their information

Canadian legal professionals have filed a complaint against Facebook, accusing the social networking site of 22 separate privacy violations.

The 35-page document from CIPPIC, the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, based at the University of Ottawa, alleges numerous privacy failures. They believe Facebook violates the Canadian Personal Information Protection and Electronic Document Act (PIPEDA).

"Social networking online is a growing phenomenon," said CIPPIC's director Philippa 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."

Lisa Feinberg, a law student at the University, who is behind the complaint, said: "We're concerned that Facebook is deceiving its users. Facebook promotes itself as a social utility, but it's also involved in commercial activities like targeted advertising."

CIPPIC's complaint argues that Facebook fails to inform members how their information is disclosed to third parties for advertising and other profit-making purposes. It also argues that the site has failed to obtain permission from members for such uses of their personal information.

Facebook accused CIPPIC of making "serious" errors. "We pride ourselves on the industry-leading controls we offer users over their personal information," said a company spokesperson. "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. The complaint also misinterprets PIPEDA in a manner that would effectively forbid voluntary online sharing of information and ignores key elements of Facebook's privacy policy and architecture. We look forward to working with [Privacy] Commissioner [Jennifer] Stoddart to set the record straight and will continue our ongoing efforts to educate users and the public around privacy controls on Facebook."

Lawson said CIPPIC chose to concentrate on Facebook because it is the largest social networking site in Canada, but that later it would probably turn its attention to MySpace. Canada contains Facebook's third largest user base after the US and the UK.

Canada's Privacy Commissioner will now hear the complaint, and could take up to one year to report her findings. Stoddart often prefers negotiation to resolve disputes, but can seek court injunctions if negotation fails.

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