10-06-2009 Safety and Privacy Must Come First on Social Networks
Safety and Privacy Must Come First on Social Networks
U.S. and EU consumer groups call for stronger privacy laws and stepped up enforcement to eliminate harmful practices
June 19, 2009 – The Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue’s Information Society Policy Committee applauds the Article 29 Working Party, EU privacy advisors, for recommending increased scrutiny of third-party developers of applications designed for use on social networks. These third-party applications collect personal data from network members, who for the most part are unaware of both the collection and of the potential privacy risks. The third-party developers, who have access to users’ personal information for marketing, promotions and advertising, may elude European rules on data protection and privacy.
“These third-party developers and marketers must be subject to tighter restrictions,” said Susan Grant and Falk Lüke, co-chairs of Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue’s Information Society Policy Committee. “We agree with the EU privacy advisors that even companies based outside Europe should be subject to European rules if their applications operate in the EU.”
A policy paper released in May by the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue’s Information Society Policy Committee highlights the privacy, security and marketing concerns inherent in the social networking web sites that have become wildly popular on both sides of the Atlantic. The Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD) is a forum of U.S. and European Union consumer organizations founded to develop joint consumer policy recommendations to the US government and the EU. TACD can be found on the web atwww.tacd.org .
Social networks are online, or “virtual,” communities that link people in cyberspace. In social networks people can see social connections that are often hidden in the real world and thereby foster a wider sense of community, share common interests and accomplish goals in everyday life. The popular networks have also created underlying business models to generate revenue through third-party applications running on their systems, prompting concerns about how much personal user data is shared with third party developers.
The TACD Information Society Policy Committee finds that social networks pose substantial challenges to users’ privacy because they are built on platforms that are “free” to users who “pay” for access by providing personal information during the registration process. Users are often unaware that social network companies and third parties use this “currency” to target them, often deviously, for third party applications and commercial offers. These covert marketing techniques are especially dangerous when they target vulnerable users, such as children.
Due to the complexity of social networks, most users are not aware of the potential risks and often do not know how to best protect themselves. “First and foremost, we need to forbid making access and the use of a social network contingent on user agreement to the use of his or her data for marketing purposes,” said Grant of the Consumer Federation of America, U.S. co-chair of the TACD Information Society Policy Committee.
The Policy Committee resolution finds that the rapid development of new marketing and communications technologies means that governments in the U.S. and the EU must enact or revise privacy legislation and step up enforcement efforts. “Voluntary measures by industry, such as codes of conduct and ‘self-regulation’ are not enough,” said Lüke of Federation of German Consumer Organisations, EU co-chair of the TACD Information Society Policy Committee.
Because little is known about the amount of personal data that social networks hand over to third parties, the Policy Committee suggests that their respective governments commission research to learn more about today’s social network marketing “eco system” and to identify and assess impacts on young people’s cognitive and emotional development when they participate in social networks, video channels, online games and virtual worlds. Instead of taking the easy way out with voluntary industry measures, the Policy Committee calls on their respective governments to explicitly prohibit online marketing practices promote social ills.
Susan Grant, TACD Co-Chair Information Society Policy Committee Director of Consumer Protection, Consumer Federation of America
Falk Lueke, TACD Co-Chair Information Society Policy Committee Policy Officer Consumer Rights in the Digital World at Federation of German Consumers Organisation
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