Facebook’s no stranger to digital privacy controversies, and for that matter neither is Google–but it now seems that both companies may be facing a new legal challenge in the E.U. over user-sharing of data about people without their consent.
The issue has arisen thanks to the concerns of Swiss and German data protection commissioners. They’ve been investigating the matter, and have got to the point that they’re demanding that Facebook “explain” its position. Their main beef is that if you’re a Facebooker, you can upload information about someone else–email IDs, photos, and so on–even if that person isn’t a member of the site, or is a member but prefers to keep their own data (when self-published) on the down-low. This facility, which is currently organized so that “they simply allow anyone who wants to use this service to say they have the consent of their friends or acquaintances,” as Switzerland’s commissioner Hanspeter Thuer noted, may actually violate certain aspects of an individual’s “right to privacy,” as enshrined in various E.U. laws.
In fact, Facebook may be in direct violation of the strict privacy laws in Switzerland (think–Swiss bank accounts) and could be forced to contact Swiss residents whose information has been shared to verify that this fact meets with their approval. (Their phone numbers are probably in Facebook’s directory.)
Of course, Google and Flickr are exploring this same sort of area with ID tagging, and Google is exploring aspects of automatic person recognition with systems like Street View and Google Goggles. Google felt the wrath of European courts just back in February when an Italian judge ruled several execs were found personally liable for an abusive video being posted to YouTube–a terrible event, which the Google folk concerned had utterly no interaction with.
Is this a sign that the European interpretation of digital privacy, like Canada’s, will be a limiting factor in Facebook’s plans for changing how much information is automatically “public domain” on its systems? The new World’s free-thinking about the future of privacy coming into collision with the old World’s feelings, perhaps? The repercussions for Facebook’s goal (and Google’s too) of being a real-time finger on the pulse of the world, with genuine data attributable to individual Facebookers, could be serious. Twitter, on the other hand, with its more obvious “opt-in to share information” model and ability to Tweet anonymously, is probably safe from this sort of legal criticism.