On Campus

Facebook agrees to privacy changes, given year to implement

Federal privacy commissioner reacts to a formal complaint from UOttawa law students

The federal privacy commissioner has agreed to give Facebook one year to make the “complex” technical changes required to protect user privacy on its popular social networking site.

Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart told a news conference Thursday that she’s “very pleased” with the way the company handled her complaints.

And while the changes are being enforced under Canada’s privacy law, Stoddart noted that “Facebook has said to us this is a global change,” to its operations.

That means the Canadian ruling will improve the privacy of some 200 million-plus Facebook users worldwide.

Stoddart’s office will be monitoring the agreed-upon alterations, including getting a look at some of the changes as they are developed.

“In essence, we’re going to be looking under the hood,” said Elizabeth Dunham, the assistant commissioner who led the privacy investigation.

Stoddart, reacting to a formal complaint from University of Ottawa law students, was concerned that Facebook held on to personal information indefinitely – even after people closed their accounts – and that it shared users’ information with almost a million third-party developers of Facebook applications.

After extensive negotiations, the company has agreed to make technological changes to restrict third-party access unless users give express consent. It will also take steps to make it much clearer to users the difference between deleting an account – which removes all personal information from Facebook servers – and deactivating it, which merely mothballs the information.

Changes are also being made to handling accounts of deceased users.

“All of these users will have a far clearer picture of how their personal information is being shared once Facebook implements our recommendations,” said Stoddart.

“They will also have far more control over what they are sharing and with whom.”

She noted the investigation “has clearly touched a chord worldwide.”

There are nearly 12 million Facebook users in Canada, which places this country among the world leaders in per-capita usage of the site.

The commissioner garnered international attention this summer when Canada became the first country to legally examine Facebook’s privacy provisions.

Students at the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic at the University of Ottawa lodged a complaint with Stoddart in May 2008, alleging Facebook breached Canada’s privacy law in a dozen areas.

After months of investigation and discussions between the privacy office and Facebook, Stoddart ruled in July that four of the 12 specific complaints lacked merit, another four had already been addressed by Facebook and four more were “well-founded.”

Stoddart issued recommendations and has been discussing their implementation with Facebook for the last month.

Facebook has agreed that the changes it is making to meet Canadian privacy law will be employed across the site for all users worldwide. The European Union has expressed concerns about Facebook similar to Canada’s.

The changes may also impact privacy practices at other social networking sites, such as MySpace and Twitter.

Stoddart said her office has already been contacted by another major social networking site – she refused to say which one, for privacy reasons – and that she hopes all such sites will “look at the blueprint we think we have put down in this particular case and adapt it to their own circumstances.”

Facebook allows members to sign up, acquire online friends, and share photos and “status reports” about what they’re doing.

– The Canadian Press

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.