Online privacy battle brewing

Should
websites such as Facebook and Google be held responsible if personal
information, pictures, or videos about an individual are posted online by a
third-party without consent? That is the question currently being explored by
officials in Switzerland and Germany.

The
ongoing investigations come roughly a month after an Italian court ruled that a
trio of Google executives were criminally liable for a video posted to their
website by a user. The video showed students bullying an autistic classmate,
and was available on the site for two months in 2006 before Google received a
complaint and removed it. The executives were given a six month suspended
sentence in the case.

Now,
Swiss officials are considering requiring social networks such as Facebook to
contact individuals who have had personal information posted online, seeking
their permission for the content to remain visible to the public. Furthermore,
data protection commissioners are insisting that Facebook defend its practice
of allowing registered members to publicly post email addresses, photos, and
other information about non-members.

“The
way it’s organized at the moment, they simply allow anyone who wants to use
this service to say they have the consent of their friends or
acquaintances,” Swiss commissioner Hanspeter Thuer said.

“We’ve
written to Facebook and told them they’re not abiding by the law in
Europe,” added Thilo Weichert, a data protection commissioner in the German
state of Schleswig Holstein, adding that he is in discussion with colleagues
from other members of the European Union, which could result in similar
investigations in other countries under a 2000 EU policy statement governing
privacy rights.

According
to Jordans, “Any changes resulting from the investigation could
drastically alter the way Facebook, Google’s YouTube and others operate,
shifting the responsibility for ensuring personal privacy from users to the
company.”

That
could result in social networking sites and other online content providers
being forced to provide tools for nonusers to remove unapproved content, as
Facebook has recently done, which would be a costly proposition for some larger
online firms and could open the door for government-enforced censorship, Google’s
head of privacy said.

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