Sunday, June 1, 2008

Facebook Accused of Violating Canadian Law

According to this article from Computer World, a complaint has been filed against Facebook for violating Canada's Personal Information and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA). If that law, and its rather unwieldy acronym, seem familiar, it could be because there were concerns last year that Google's Street View product might violate it (see, e.g., here). In the case of Street View, the concerns were raised over the broad scope and indefinite retention of the data which was collected. In the case of Facebook, there are several possible violations. First, Facebook (allegedly) does not fully inform users how broadly their information can be shared with strangers for social networking. Second, Facebook (again, allegedly), fails to notify users of how their information will be used for advertising, and shared with third parties.

Without commenting on the merits of the complaint, I will note that the Computer World article points out that

Jeffrey Chester, founder and executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy in the U.S., said the Canadian organization "has lifted the veil that covers Facebook's extensive personal data collection apparatus." [and said that]...It's a giant privacy wake-up call about Facebook from our friends up north."

My own view is a bit different. I don't think this is a wake-up call at all. American consumers already know that there are some serious privacy issues surrounding Facebook. In fact, there is already a lawsuit in U.S. court based on Facebook's beacon program (see, e.g., here).. The problem is that U.S. consumers don't really have much they can do about privacy. The lawsuit about beacon is only possible because of a very narrow provision of federal law which covers video tape rentals and sales records, but that kind of sui generis protection doesn't really translate into decent coverage for personal information. Thus, my view is that the Canadian complaint, to the extent it's a wakeup call at all, is a wakeup about the state of U.S. privacy laws, not a wakeup about the threats to privacy.

1 comment:

Jeff Chester said...

US privacy advocates have so far failed to address how Facebook--and other social networks--share user information with outside developers (with widgets, for example). The Canadian complaint effectively raises this issue.