Blame Canada: Facebook Being Probed Over Privacy — Again

If you looked at the recent tweaks to Facebook’s privacy controls and thought that some of your settings had been changed to expose more of your content to the outside world than ever before, you’re not alone. At least one Facebook user has filed a complaint with the Canadian government about exactly that, and the Privacy Commissioner of Canada said this morning that it’s opening an investigation into the matter. According to the Commissioner’s office, the probe “focuses on a tool introduced by Facebook in mid-December 2009, which required users to review their privacy settings. The complainant alleges that the new default settings would have made his information more readily available than the settings he had previously put in place.” Assistant Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham was quoted in a statement announcing the probe that:

“The individual’s complaint mirrors some of the concerns that our Office has heard and expressed to Facebook in recent months. 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.”

Facebook, meanwhile, says that it went to significant effort to inform users of the changes and what was involved. “Any recommended changes to a user’s privacy settings were clearly shown to the user repeatedly and were not implemented until the user accepted these changes,” Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt told Reuters. “In addition, users were required to review the final settings after any changes and pointed to where they could reverse or further customize their settings.”

Ironically, the new settings that sparked this latest complaint were in part a result of investigations like the one the Canadian Privacy Commissioner just announced. Last year, Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart led an investigation of Facebook’s privacy standards, which culminated in a report in July that found a number of issues with the way the social network handled users’ information. In August, after discussions with the company, Facebook agreed to modify its site to deal with these concerns.

Facebook has been the subject of repeated privacy complaints and investigations by a number of governments, including Canada’s, because of the way it reveals certain personal data, and in particular the way it shares that data with third-party application developers. One of the Canadian Privacy Commissioner’s criticisms in the past has been that Facebook shares more personal information with app developers than it needs to, and doesn’t do a good enough job of explaining what it’s sharing with users and why.

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Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Bart van de Biezen