Facebook ‘Like’ button now under probe

Facebook received welcome news that the Canadian Privacy Commissioner is satisfied the social network addressed privacy complaints lodged against it two years ago, but the social networking site is not yet entirely off the hook.

Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart told ITbusinesses.ca yesterday, that her announcement was “not a blanket endorsement of Facebook” and that her office continues to investigate several key features of the site as they pertain to user privacy and personal information.

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“We basically have two sets of investigations on Facebook still going on,” Stoddart said.

The commissioner said she can not provide much detail because the probe is still in progress but admitted that her office is looking into:

  • The use of personal information in Facebook’s invitation feature
  • The implication on user privacy of Facebook’s “Like” button

“We received many reports of people worried that their photos and basic profile information were open to the public. They were concerned over getting friend invitations out of the blue,” said Stoddart.

In April, Facebook launched its blue “Like” button to encourage users to vote on products, media stories and other online content. However, David Fewer, director of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC), said many users were unaware of the repercussions of clicking on the Like button.

“Many people click on the button without realizing their personal tastes would be disseminated on the Web as a means of attracting additional traffic for the site containing the button,” said Fewer.

In a statement yesterday, Facebook said it shared with the OPC (Office of the Privacy Commissioner) “the same goal of ensuring that everyone, including the more than 15 million people on Facebook in Canada have control ove their information.”

The company said it had made a number of changes including improvements in notifications, better explanations and enhancements to the language in our privacy policy, and the introduction of a granular permission process for applications designed to provide people with better understanding and control over the information they share with applications and websites.

“We have also completely redesigned the privacy settings page to be much more simple, significantly reduced the amount of information that is always visible to everyone and given people more control over how applications and websites access your information, including the ability to completely turn off Facebook Platform applications and websites,” Facebook said.

The company said it hopes to resolve any outstanding concerns the OPC has with Facebook.

More user control need

“Our biggest issue with Facebook remains the lack of user control over who gets what personal information they have on the site,” said the head of the Ottawa-based CIPPIC which represents consumer and other public interests in such areas as intellectual property, consumer protection in e-commerce, domain name governance, personal information protection and privacy.

CIPPIC was the body that filed a complaint against Facebook before the Privacy Commissioner’s office in 2008.

At that time, CIPPIC was essentially complaining about features on Facebook which compelled users to allow third party game applications to collect their personal profile information when they sign on the use the app.

“At that time, transparency was the issue. What the public got out of that complaint was better transparency into what personal information they might be giving away to third party application,” said Fewer.

Facebook now requires third party application to tell users what parts of their profile the app wants to access and request permission to do so.

“Facebook users now don’t need to worry about what personal information is being snapped up when they activate a game or application on the site,” Stoddart said.

CIPPIC, however said, consumers need to be “mindful of what the Commissioner’s announcement is and isn’t.”

“We need to keep in mind that the Privacy Commission is merely saying that Facebook has complied with privacy demands put forward two years ago,” said Fewer. “The Commission is not saying Facebook has a clean bill of health as far as privacy is concerned.”

Canadian businesses like the Like button

Facebook’s Like button may strike privacy watchdog’s as a suspect feature but some Canadian businesses would like more people to push it.

Elmer Sotto, head of growth for Facebook in Canada said his company is currently working with more than 250 local companies to install the button and other Facebook tools on their site.

In a recent forum, Sotto said, Facebook’s installation of social media tools such as the “like”, “comment” and “share” buttons found on Facebook on the Globe and Mail’s Website as part of a campaign to encourage viewer collaboration was very successful.

“In a matter of 72 hours we were able to boost the site’s 2,000 ‘likes’ to more than 5,000 ‘likes’,” said Sotto.

Social net user beware

CIPPIC’s Fewer and Commissioner Stoddart both believe Facebook still has a long way to in satisfying Canadian privacy requirements.

“Facebook’s practices is still to go ahead and change privacy settings prior warning top users and generally their default features point to releasing user information rather than guarding it,” said Fewer.

He hopes Facebook would move towards two key directions:

  • Providing Facebook users greater transparency on their personal information that is being shared and to whom
  • Providing Facebook users with a more granular degree of control over personal and profile information

“I hope Facebook’s compliance will assure the public that we do have privacy laws governing social sites and that companies should toe the privacy line,” said Stoddart.

“However my office can only go so far. Ultimately it’s the responsibility of the online citizen to look out for themselves and protect their privacy,” she said.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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