Facebook privacy under investigation

Complaint sparks debate on social networking site’s intentions and responsibilities

The Canadian Privacy Commission (CPC) launched a new investigation into Facebook privacy policies and practices last week. The CPC acted in response to a complaint claiming that new default privacy settings introduced by the site in mid-December 2009 made the complainant’s personal information more available than his previous settings.

“The individual’s complaint mirrors some of the concerns that our office has heard and expressed to Facebook in recent months,” said Elizabeth Denham, the assistant privacy commissioner, in a press release.

Denham spearheaded a similar investigation last summer, which released findings criticizing how Facebook handles the personal information in its care, suggesting that the site also provide users with more control over their privacy settings.

After intensive discussions in August 2009, Facebook agreed to modify the site in order to address the commissioner’s concerns. However, these changes have only evoked fresh concerns.

“Some Facebook users are disappointed by certain changes being made to the site – changes that were supposed to strengthen their privacy and the protection of their personal information,” said Denham, in the press release.

The complaints raise questions over whose interest may be served in the operation of Facebook, a site with over 350 million users worldwide, 12 million of which are Canadian– a third of the country’s population.

Michael Hoechsmann, a professor of media and technology in the McGill Faculty of Education, commented on Facebook’s intentions toward protecting the privacy of its users.

“I think the investigation is warranted, but I have some misgivings about how the investigation will be conducted and what the implications will be for the Internet as we know it,” he said.

“Facebook seems a bit brash. They have so much momentum and such a large user base they seem willing to make unpopular decisions if it’s in their corporate interests,” Hoechsmann added.

Facebook generates revenue by selling advertising space they can target at specific users. The site is able to target users based on their personal information, to which the site has broad access.

“At the end of the day, Facebook is a corporation trying to make money,” said Nick Kandel, U1 Arts.

Hoechsmann described Facebook as a new medium of market research. In the past, Hoechsmann said, markets would sample youth to find out their preferences.

“Everyone gives [such information] up now [through sites like Facebook],” said Hoechsmann.

Within the context of the privacy debate, some believe that responsibility for privacy settings should begin and end with the user.

“Privacy settings are your responsibility,” said Kay Penney, U1 Science.

Hoechsmann said he was hopeful that users would be careful when it came to their privacy.

“Youth do make good decisions around setting private information,” he said.

Hoechsmann, however, distinguished between the type of information displayed on sites like Facebook, and more sensitive and potentially damaging information, like credit card numbers and bank accounts.

“[Information on Facebook] is more of a personal nature,” said Hoechsmann. “People aren’t worried about credit fraud. Here the issue is how we are represented to others.”

Nevertheless, the CPC investigation has raised questions over how emerging media like the Internet should be regulated, if at all.

“We need to have some regulatory oversight [over the Internet], as we have had with old media,” said Hoechsmann.

Taylor Stocks, U2 Arts, agreed with him. “There’s no dialog over what’s acceptable [on the Internet],” Stocks said.

However, others feel that oversight or regulation could stunt the potential of the internet as a global, information-sharing medium.

“There’s something exciting about an unregulated Internet that’s part of its potentiality…[and] its capacity to share and build new cultural forms through mass collaboration,” said Hoechsmann.

Hoechsmann cited the examples of remix and mashup music circulating on the Internet as progenies of the medium that could be threatened by stricter oversight and regulation, whether by the hand of the government or the corporations with economic interests in the Internet.

“Things like remix and mashup could be regulated right out of existence,” said Hoechsmann. “We could over-regulate the Internet to the point where we can’t use it like we do now. It could become a more restricted, corporate-controlled Internet.”

The CPC could not comment directly because the investigation is ongoing.