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Norwegian consumer group calls for tighter Facebook regulation

Facebook denies users their basic rights and should be brought into line by privacy regulators, according to Norway's consumer protection organisation the Consumer Council. It has filed a complaint with regulators about the company.02 Jun 2010

Forbrukerrådet, the Consumer Council of Norway, has filed a complaint with the Norwegian Data Inspectorate about Facebook and Zynga, the company behind some of the social network's biggest games.

The Council said that the companies sell personal information about users in a way they cannot control, and that this breaks Norway's data protection laws.

"Facebook and the games providers are amassing an increasing amount of information about us. We believe that much of the collection and use of personal information is in breach of the Data Protection Act," says Thomas Nortvedt, deputy director of the Council.

"The services appear to be free of charge, but we are still paying a high price – in the form of personal information. Social networking sites have become highly effective information collectors, with the unconscious blessing of the consumer," he said.

Facebook has been under increasing pressure about its privacy practices, with activists claiming that it has used complex privacy-choosing procedures and carefully chosen default options to effectively trick users into making much of their personal information public.

The company made major changes to default settings at the end of last year and faced a public backlash from users and regulators. It announced more changes to its privacy settings last week in a bid to pacify critics.

The Consumer Council of Norway has said, though, that the company's frequent policy changes and attempts to comply only with US law are unfair to users in Norway, and that its authorities should outline exactly what the company has to do to stay on the right side of the law.

"Facebook and other providers should not be able to negotiate away our rights as laid down by law, or to refer to Californian law," said Nortvedt. "In many ways, a parallel terms and conditions universe has developed on the internet, whereby basic principles are being bypassed, set aside and twisted. General contract law and data protection must of course be complied with – even online."

Zynga is a games publisher whose Mafia Wars and FarmVille games are amongst the most popular on Facebook. The Council said that consumers did not understand what terms and conditions governed the collection of data about them.

"Many of the gravest examples of unreasonable and one-sided terms of use can be found in games providers such as Zynga," said Nortvedt. "As long as Facebook disclaims responsibility for these providers, and the providers operate with their own terms and conditions, it would be appropriate for the Data Inspectorate to also look into this aspect of the social networking sites,"

The Council wants the Data Inspectorate to make it clear what social networking sites and games publishers can and cannot do under Norwegian data protection law.

It said that users should own all the information they post to social networking sites, and that they should be clearly informed what information is stored and how it is used. The Council also wants Facebook to take responsibility for the data-use behaviour of games publishers that operate through it, such as Zynga.

The Council last year completed a year-long research project into social networking sites and their data policies, finding that users were being unfairly treated.

"There are general principles of fair contracts and privacy that must apply also in an online environment," said the Council's assistant director Hans Marius Graasvold when that study was published. "Nothing has changed in that respect, except the online entrepreneurs at one point just stopped caring about the law."

The Council has taken on US technology giants before. It raised legal objections to Apple's iTunes online music shop and the fact that it tied music sold there to Apple's iPod music players. The practice was declared illegal by the Norwegian Consumer Ombudsman. Apple later abandoned the technology.