Early this week, I found a connection request from one of my out-of-territory nieces on my Facebook account, and followed the link to accept the invitation to be her friend.
Since I come from a big family, I am slowly accumulating a pretty hefty collection of such contacts, even though I am something of a Facebook sloth.
Unlike many of my Facebook companions, I do not do a whole lot of typing in the “What’s on your mind?” space that sends out messages to your network of friends.
I usually wait until I have something droll and event-appropriate to say, which is not all that often.
Mostly, I am a passive observer, seeing how my friends and family are doing.
Though some of my buddies invite me join them in games or quizzes, I never respond; not because I am anti-social but because I have little interest or time for such things – and, more importantly, because I am constantly put off by the disclaimer window that appears when you click on one of those links, which tells you that you are authorizing the game or quiz to access your information on Facebook.
I am not a paranoid by nature, but I have been on the net long to fight shy of giving out information access authorizations so indiscriminately, not knowing who I am dealing with our what kind of information I am authorizing them to look at.
It was with both surprise and interest, then, when I learned last week that the Canadian government, of all people, had the same concerns, and was ready to haul the Facebook company into a Canadian court if it did not stop violating Canada’s digital privacy law.
Last Friday, the privacy commissioner held a press conference in Ottawa introducing a report listing the privacy concerns her office had discovered in the course of investigating Facebook’s handling of the private nature of its subscribers.
Many things they are doing, it turns out, are in violation of Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act. (PIPEDA)
Though I am not a lawyer, I took some time out to read through this act with Facebook’s operating procedures in mind, and it started to look pretty clear to me that they are indeed in violation on a number of fronts.
All told, in a country that has a pretty rag-tag digital copyright law, we are being pretty well served by PIPEDA.
It is an act that, though it is perhaps a little lacking in enforcement teeth, at least sets the principle that Canadian citizens have ownership over their private information, and that companies and other agencies are obliged to acquire any such information fairly and openly, and must also take all reasonable care to protect the security of that information.
Digital privacy laws in the USA, where Facebook is headquartered, are a lot more loosey-doosey.
According to the privacy commissioner, though, the fact that Facebook is offering its services in Canada (it supposedly has 12 million Canadian subscribers – a pretty wild figure, when you think there are only 33 million of us), they are subject to the PIPEDA provisions.
They have been given 30 days to respond to the privacy commission’s concerns, or face being hauled into the Federal court.
Canada is the first country to hit Facebook with this kind of charge, and it will be interesting to see if they can make it stick.
On the face of it, it looks like the privacy commissioner is fighting the good fight for all us chat-happy little social networkers—but the case has some rather odd and disturbing implications, too.
For one thing, if the Canadian government can establish that its local legislation applies to services vended by an out-of-country entity like Facebook, this could turn out to be a dangerous precedent.
As I said, Canada’s digital privacy laws, if a little toothless, are at least very right-minded in principal.
Other countries – like China, for instance, or Russia – have laws about digital information that are a whole lot more evil-minded and a whole loot more bloody-fanged.
If Facebook is forced to toe the line when it comes to Canada’s informational laws, how long will it be before one of those countries, or some other tin-pot dictatorship, starts beating up on the company because it is, in fact, too protective of its subscriber’s information?
Facebook has been rather fey and non-confrontational with the Canadian Privacy Commission, possibly because this an issue they do not want to see hit the courtroom table.
And I agree with them.
I am not at all convinced that taking a legalistic approach to addressing Facebook’s shortcomings is safe or reasonable.
I think the privacy commissioner has done a very good thing by throwing the weight of her office behind complaints about Facebook’s digital shortcomings; she may even have set a salutary example for other countries, who can add to the pressure with similar findings and demands.
But it is better for everybody – Facebook, the Canadian government and even us Facebookies – that this thing gets settled amicably, out of court.
Bad digital practices should not be allowed to set bad digital law precedents.
Rick Steele is a technology junkie
who lives in Whitehorse.