On Campus

Law students spark federal investigation into Facebook privacy

U of O students argue Facebook breaks Canadian law by disclosing personal information to advertisers

The federal privacy commissioner has launched an investigation into Facebook after University of Ottawa law students complained the site breaches Canadian law by disclosing personal information to advertisers without obtaining proper consent.The students, some who are dedicated Facebook users, allege in a complaint lodged Friday that the popular social networking website has committed 22 violations of the law.

“There’s definitely some significant shortcomings with Facebook’s privacy settings and with their ability to protect users,” said Harley Finkelstein, 24, one of the four students behind the complaint. “If a 14-year-old kid in Toronto decides to join Facebook, and is prompted to add a network, and he decides to join the Toronto network — because that’s where he lives — does he really know that everyone on that network — by default — will have access to his personal information?”

The students drew up the complaint after comparing the company’s policies and practices to Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA).

Facebook refuted the claims, saying the complaint ignores key elements of the company’s policy.

“We’ve reviewed the complaint and found it has serious factual errors — most notably its neglect of the fact that almost all Facebook data is willingly shared by users,” Facebook chief privacy officer Chris Kelly said Friday in an e-mail. “The complaint also misinterprets PIPEDA in a manner that would effectively forbid voluntary online sharing of information.”

Kelly said Facebook has worked with Ontario’s information and privacy commissioner to create a brochure and video that will educate users about the site’s privacy controls.

“We take all complaints very seriously,” said Anne-Marie Hayden, spokeswoman for the federal privacy commissioner’s office. “We have no reason to believe that Facebook will not be co-operative.”

The students claim Facebook deceives users about its foray into targeted advertising. They allege the company doesn’t obtain proper consent — getting permission from the user to disclose personal information — and fails to give notice, meaning it doesn’t clearly inform them about who is seeing their information.

“Everyone realizes the Internet is a little bit unsecure, but because it’s Facebook, it lends some credibility,” said Jordan Plener, 25, another of the students involved in the complaint.

Canadian law mandates that sensitive information — in Facebook, details like address, sexual preference, birthdate and school — can’t be disclosed without gaining express consent. On the site, users must specifically change their settings to keep that information private. Though Facebook has recently taken some steps to overhaul its privacy system, Plener said the main concern has been to improve esthetics.

Under law, the privacy commissioner has up to one year to investigate the complaint and make recommendations. The office plans to launch a website next week dedicated to educating youth about privacy on the Internet.

-with a report from CP

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