Social nets under scrutiny in EU

25 June 2009

BRUSSELS: Social networks such as Facebook and MySpace should be subject to the data protection rules that apply across the 27 countries in the European Union, according to a paper issued by the Article 29 Working Party, a body which advises the European Commission.

Social networks were defined by the Working Party as "online communication platforms which enable individuals to join or create networks of like-minded users," or, in more legal terms, as "information society services."

While noting that the "evolution" of social networking services is a "relatively recent phenomenon," the organisation argued "the number of users of these sites is continuing to multiply at an exponential rate."

Privacy concerns have thus quickly come to the fore, as the type of content published on these sites "can be used by third parties for a wide variety of purposes, including commercial purposes."

More specifically, as users often "post large amounts of information about their interests," they "offer a refined market to advertisers wishing to serve targeted advertisements based on this information."

This has become particularly important as many online communities are moving from a model of "Web 2.0 for fun" to "Web 2.0 for productivity and services."

Among the recommendations in the report are that social networks should "provide comprehensive and clear information about the purposes and different ways in which they intend to process personal data."

They should also offer default settings that err on the side of consumer privacy, and make it easy for users to limit how much information is collected.

Other measures might include deleting data from accounts that have been closed by consumers, and shutting down profiles that are no longer in use.
The Working Party also suggested "not using sensitive data in behavioural advertising models, unless all legal requirements are met."

Jan Dhont, a data privacy lawyer at Lorenz, which is based in Brussels, argued that the EU data protection laws will "make it more difficult for Facebook and others to operate" in the region than is the case elsewhere.

Data sourced from Wall Street Journal/TechCrunch; additional content by WARC staff