Facebook's privacy policies investigated in Canada

The federal privacy commissioner in Canada is now investigating allegations that Facebook may be illegally collecting personal information such as telephone numbers, birthdays, and instant messaging addresses without authorization.

Entered by law students at the University of Ottawa, the complaint charges that Facebook is committing a total of 22 infractions of Canada's Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA).

In their letter to Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart, the students also allege Facebook has not been "upfront about its advertisers' use of personal information and the level of users' control" of privacy settings.

"Initially when a user joins Facebook, his or her profile is only viewable by other users who have been designated as the user's friend on Facebook (a "friend"). Friends of a user can see all personal information that the user has provided to Facebook for the user's profile. To restrict the information that is shared with friends, a user must take further action and change his or her privacy settings," according to the letter.

Also last month, the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Internet Clinic (CIPPIC) -- a group made up largely of lawyers and law students from the University of Ottawa -- sent its own letter to Comm. Stoddart, accusing Bell Canada of failing to obtain consent from its Internet customers for the use of deep-packet inspection (DPI), a technology for reporting on how subscribers are using their Internet connections.

The complaints made in Canada echoed issues raised in the US just a couple of weeks ago regarding CATV provider Charter Communications. At that time, Reps. Edward Markey (D - Mass.) and Joe Barton (R - Texas) sent a letter to Charter President Neil Smith requesting that the cable company put a temporary stop on plans for a new service that collects subscribers' Web surfing and search data. That data was being used for the purpose of targeting ads.

In a statement issued in conjunction with that letter, Rep. Markey contended, "Simply providing a method for users to opt-out of the program is not the same has asking users to affirmatively agree to participate in the program."

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