Canadian privacy commissioner on Facebook's friends list

Even as Canada's Privacy Commissioner is about to investigate a complaint about Facebook's alleged breach of Canadian privacy law, Ontario's Privacy Commissioner's office is collaborating with the social networking site on a privacy education program.

"I don't think it's simply one or the other," he says. "We try to pre-address areas and work towards best practices and standards."

Facebook is hugely popular in Canada, with about one in five Canadians using the site. In Toronto, that ratio is even higher, according to Facebook's statistics.

The rapid adoption of Facebook across the nation shows an assumption on the part of the user that the company will be responsible with sensitive information.

But that is not a good assumption to make, Clarke says.

"Most people don't bother to read the terms of service," says author of a blog on social media. "The terms are written by lawyers so the average Joe won't understand them."

But one can't point expect Facebook to entirely shoulder the responsibility of protecting its users' privacy. For a user-content driven site, those volunteering information about themselves must also exercise caution, Clarke says.

"The big burden of responsibility lies with the vendors who created these sites," he says. But as users, "we've got to be a lot smarter."

Youth are the biggest demographic on social networking sites, so it is no surprise the school community has shown great interest in the privacy issue.

Many schools have asked the commissioner's office to give presentations to students as well as educate staff, Anderson says.

Two previous brochures were produced in partnership with Facebook --one aimed at college students and the other at younger school children. The literature raises concerns over youth's eagerness to agree to participate in Facebook.

"A large percentage of users are high school and lower school students," the pamphlet states. "It cannot be assumed that they will comprehend the legal jargon and complicated working in the Privacy Policy."

The Internet is generally an unsafe environment when it comes to children protecting their own privacy, Clarke says. Kids are presented with the same terms of service as adults when they sign on to Facebook and other social networking sites, but don't exercise the same level of caution.

Clarke compares his own 70-year-old father's usage of Facebook to how a 13-year-old might approach an account on that site.

"My dad's used to a more private and closed society," he says. "Whereas a 13-year-old will just share everything because that's the societal norm."

Clarke said he himself started actually reading the agreement terms on social networking sites he joins about one year ago. "They worry me," he says. The Facebook terms are particularly possessive of content.

"What it says, in summary, is that [when I] contribute anything to Facebook, I give them a license to do whatever the hell they want," he notes. "That's sort of chilling."

Ontario's Privacy Commissioner started a relationship with Facebook when it was a tool used by university students, Anderson says. Now they're continuing to focus on issues around student's use of the social network.

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