Facebook changes a slap in the face of privacy authorities

Facebook has once again trounced the notion of user privacy in a week when privacy authorities from around the world issued a stern warning to companies offering online service.Brian Jackson, journalist

Canada’s Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart and nine other international privacy watchdogs warned the likes of Google and Facebook they’d crossed the lines too many times when it came to launching new services without fully considering the privacy ramifications. Terms such as “enforcement”, “fines”, “investigations” and “last straw” were freely used at the press conference that mainly blasted Google Buzz.

But Facebook was also specifically called out by Stoddart at that press conference. Perhaps the commissioner is getting annoyed with Facebook after opening a second investigation into the social network in January.

“In our country, personal information is personal, you can’t just deem it to be public,” she said at the event. “It’s another example of egregious disregard for privacy.”

When Facebook launched its new features on Wednesday, just one day after the stern warning, it committed what can easily be considered another egregious disregard for privacy. Effectively, it took the Facebook Connect feature that required users to opt-in to allow Web sites access to personal information and instead made it an opt-out feature.

Suddenly, Facebook users surfing the Web may see their profile picture plastered on a page they frequent. There’s a big difference between reading a web page and suddenly having your face emblazoned on it for the world to see. Worse yet, your friends can freely dispense information about you to other sites without your consent.

There’s a way to opt-out of what Facebook calls the new “instant personalization” feature in your privacy settings. But to really block the potential of your information to be shared, you must opt-out of all partner sites in the program. There are three right now, but you can bet more will come on board soon, making the opt-out procedure even more tedious.

The Privacy Commissioner’s office is clearly not happy about this. It’s a blatant disregard for the warning it issued, and speaks volumes about how concerned Facebook really is about the investigation underway. Here’s what Assistant Commissioner Elizabeth Denham had to say in an e-mail response:

“We have not had an opportunity to examine Facebook’s announcement of yesterday in any detail,” she writes. “It appears, however, that the company is continuing to roll out new mechanisms for sharing people’s personal information with third parties. This is an area of long-standing concern for us, and has been the subject of formal investigations by our Office.”

It’s clear Facebook isn’t getting the message about privacy. This latest move may have put it past the brink when it comes to leniency from privacy authorities in Canada and elsewhere. Some wonder if privacy authorities have the teeth to actually do anything about companies like Facebook.

Time will tell if Facebook is the first online service to be made an example of with real enforcement action, or privacy watchdogs prove to be toothless.

Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Editorial director of IT World Canada. Covering technology as it applies to business users. Multiple COPA award winner and now judge. Paddles a canoe as much as possible.

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