Thu, Mar 25, 2010 - Page 1 News List

New privacy battle looms for Facebook, Google in EU

CONSENT Swiss and German regulators are probing whether posting photos and information on individuals on Web sites without their approval is a breach of privacy


You have been tagged in 12 photos. Even if you’re not signed up to the Web site.

European regulators are investigating whether the practice of posting photos, videos and other information about people on sites such as Facebook without their consent is a breach of privacy laws.

The Swiss and German probes go to the heart of a debate that has gained momentum in Europe amid high-profile privacy cases: To what extent are social networking platforms responsible for the content their members upload?

The actions set the stage for a fresh battle between US Web giants and European authorities a month after an Italian court held three Google executives criminally responsible for a user-posted video.

Any changes resulting from the investigation could drastically alter the way Facebook, Google’s YouTube and others operate, shifting the responsibility for ensuring personal privacy from users to the company.

Swiss and German data protection commissioners are demanding that Facebook explain its practice of allowing users to upload e-mail addresses, photographs and other personal details about people who haven’t signed up to the site.

“The way it’s organized at the moment, they simply allow anyone who wants to use this service to say they have the consent of their friends or acquaintances,” Swiss commissioner Hanspeter Thuer said.

To conform with Switzerland’s strict privacy law, Facebook could be required to contact people whose information has been posted online and ask them whether they agree to its being stored there, he said.

Thilo Weichert, data protection commissioner in the northern German state of Schleswig Holstein, said in a telephone interview that Facebook’s assertion that it gets necessary consent for the posting of personal information is “total nonsense.”

“We’ve written to Facebook and told them they’re not abiding by the law in Europe,” he said.

The probes by the German and Swiss privacy watchdogs are still preliminary and would not have immediate consequences elsewhere.

However, Weichert said the issue is being discussed with other data protection officials in the 27-nation EU, which in 2000 declared privacy a fundamental right that companies and governments must respect.

The European stance differs strongly from the self-regulatory, free market approach favored in the US, Columbia University law professor Eben Moglen said.

“If the European regulators get serious, it will create a significant conflict,” said Moglen, who has been examining online privacy issues since the early days of the Web.

Richard Allan, director of policy for Facebook Europe, said some of the functions being scrutinized — such as those allowing users to upload their friends’ e-mail addresses to find them online — were common across the industry. The company has recently added a tool for nonusers to have their data removed, he said.

“As a global company what we’re trying to do is to make sure that our systems meet the requirements of all the jurisdictions in which we operate,” Allan said.

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