Ontario Privacy Commissioner on Facebook’s friends list

Listen to an interview with assistant director of privacy in Ontario, Ken Anderson

While Canada’s Privacy Commissioner is about to investigate whether Facebook is breaching Canada’s privacy laws, Ontario’s Privacy Commissioner’s office is working in tandem with the social networking site on a privacy protection initiative.

A complaint lodged with Canada’s Privacy Commissioner last week accuses Facebook of violating Canada’s privacy laws and the trust of its users by making their personal information widely available.

Specifically, Facebook was accused of breaching Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) in the complaint submitted by Ottawa-based advocacy group, the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC).

But privacy protection is precisely the issue on which Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Office is working hand-in-hand with the social networking site.

They’ve already published educational pamphlets that seek to inform youth about protecting their privacy on Facebook.

A new video will be launched at a Sept. 4 conference titled “Youth Privacy Online: Take Control – Make it your choice” in Toronto, ITBusiness.ca has learned.

It will be featured on the Ontario Privacy Commission Web site as well as on Facebook.

“We thought it would be useful to produce a video featuring the commissioner and the chief privacy officer at Facebook,” says Ken Anderson, assistant director for privacy with the Ontario office.

“It explains the privacy settings rather well and we hope it will be helpful.”

The conference will bring together Internet privacy experts with online companies and educators from across the province, Anderson adds. It could prod administrators to distribute the video more directly to schools.

“That would really be the most cost-effective, because it would be priming the pump to get it out more widely in Ontario.”

The alliance, essentially, has led to a rather unusual situation.

Two privacy commissioner offices within Canada are interacting with Facebook on the issue of privacy in vastly different ways.

The federal office will be investigating the site’s alleged breach of privacy law, and the provincial office collaborating with it on privacy education program.

And that may actually be a good thing after all, one observer suggests.

“They’re each trying to figure out their own ways of protecting the privacy of Canadians with different means,” says Michael O’Connor Clarke, vice-president of Ottawa-based public relations firm Thornley Fallis Communications.

Anderson echoes this view.

The Privacy Commissioner’s office works with many groups in an attempt to solve privacy problems pre-emptively, Anderson says.

The office may be working with a group and receiving complaints that are investigated at the same time – using a combination of education and law to keep information safe.

“I don’t think it’s simply one or the other,” he says. “We try to pre-address areas and work towards best practices and standards.”

Facebook is hugely popular in Canada, with about one in five Canadians using the site. In Toronto, that ratio is even higher, according to Facebook’s statistics.

The rapid adoption of Facebook across the nation shows an assumption on the part of the user that the company will be responsible with sensitive information.

But that is not a good assumption to make, Clarke says.

“Most people don’t bother to read the terms of service,” says author of a blog on social media. “The terms are written by lawyers so the average Joe won’t understand them.”

But one can’t point expect Facebook to entirely shoulder the responsibility of protecting its users’ privacy. For a user-content driven site, those volunteering information about themselves must also exercise caution, Clarke says.

“The big burden of responsibility lies with the vendors who created these sites,” he says. But as users, “we’ve got to be a lot smarter.”

Youth are the biggest demographic on social networking sites, so it is no surprise the school community has shown great interest in the privacy issue.

Many schools have asked the commissioner’s office to give presentations to students as well as educate staff, Anderson says.

Two previous brochures were produced in partnership with Facebook –one aimed at college students and the other at younger school children. The literature raises concerns over youth’s eagerness to agree to participate in Facebook.

“A large percentage of users are high school and lower school students,” the pamphlet states. “It cannot be assumed that they will comprehend the legal jargon and complicated working in the Privacy Policy.”

The Internet is generally an unsafe environment when it comes to children protecting their own privacy, Clarke says. Kids are presented with the same terms of service as adults when they sign on to Facebook and other social networking sites, but don’t exercise the same level of caution.

Clarke compares his own 70-year-old father’s usage of Facebook to how a 13-year-old might approach an account on that site.

“My dad’s used to a more private and closed society,” he says. “Whereas a 13-year-old will just share everything because that’s the societal norm.”

Clarke said he himself started actually reading the agreement terms on social networking sites he joins about one year ago. “They worry me,” he says. The Facebook terms are particularly possessive of content.

“What it says, in summary, is that [when I] contribute anything to Facebook, I give them a license to do whatever the hell they want,” he notes. “That’s sort of chilling.”

Ontario’s Privacy Commissioner started a relationship with Facebook when it was a tool used by university students, Anderson says. Now they’re continuing to focus on issues around student’s use of the social network.

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