A tech policy group of the University of Ottawa’s law school is petitioning the Privacy Commissioner of Canada to investigate Facebook for violating Canada’s privacy laws.
The complaint filed by the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) charges Facebook with 22 distinct privacy violations, including the claim that the social network shares more personal information with advertisers than it lets on.
“Facebook purports to provide users with a high level of control over their data,” said Harley Finkelstein, one of the law students who wrote the complaint. “But our investigation found that this is not entirely true — for example, even if you select the strongest privacy settings, your information may be shared more widely if your Facebook friends have lower privacy settings. As well, if you add a third-party application offered on Facebook, you have no choice but to let the application developer access all your information even if they don’t need it.”
This is of course not the first time that Facebook has run into trouble over privacy concerns. First it was the news feed, which began broadcasting a people’s Facebook activities to all the members of their network, whether they wanted to share them or not. Facebook, eventually, [adjusted the settings](/bus-news/article.php/3631081) of that feature giving users control over what information was shared.
But that was a minor skirmish compared to the [Beacon fiasco](/ec-news/article.php/3713881), a story that snowballed into something much larger than it had to be when we started hearing about people’s Christmas shopping lists being revealed to their loved ones and [MoveOn.org got on the case](/ent-news/article.php/3712586/More+Drama+For+Facebook.htm).
“Facebook Ruins Christmas” was a solid-gold headline, but, hyperbole aside, there is a real lesson to be found in the Beacon flap. People who love Facebook don’t tend to be the most privacy-conscious folks out there. Those who value anonymity on the Web aren’t the ones building online monuments to themselves with their personal effects like pictures, videos and their latest musings about girlfriends and boyfriends or the splendor of Barak Obama, or whatever. But that’s not the point. It’s not that they would necessarily object to sharing certain bits of information about themselves with advertisers or developers, but the protest becomes shrill when they feel that they are being deceived.
The Facebook demographic reacts poorly when companies that self-style an image of fun, hip Web 2.0 community are outed as closet commercialists. They don’t like companies making decisions for them, they don’t like being lied to and don’t like being “handled.” Facebook, for all of its brainpower and innovation and popularity, does a very poor job of managing its public perception when it steps over the line.
Of late, the company has been bringing in high-profile executives whose experience could help improve the young company’s PR image. But Facebook and its laconic CEO don’t seem to be ready just yet to cast off the fortress mentality. Let’s see if anything comes out of this fracas up north.