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Facebook, Others Face More Privacy Scrutiny in Europe

Following Italy’s conviction of three Google executives in absentia over the bullying and beating of an autistic student in Italy in 2006m, the Associated Press is reporting that privacy regulators in Switzerland and Germany are looking into how Facebook, Google, and other Internet services permit their users to upload email addresses, photos, and other information about people without their consent. At issue: two what degree are Internet companies and social networking services responsible for content their members upload, especially if that content includes personal information or likenesses of people who have not consented to having their information published. According to the story, Germany and Swiss data protection commissioners have requested Facebook detail its practices enabling users to upload photographs, email, addresses, and other information about persons who do not participate in the site.

In theory, to confirm to Swiss privacy law, Facebook and other companies could be required to obtain the consent of anyone who’s information is uploaded for distribution online.

“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 told the Associated Press, speaking of Facebook’s operating practices.

The inquiries are preliminary and will not have any immediate impact on the operation of Facebook or other companies in Germany, Switzerland, or other European countries, but they do serve to highlight growing concern about online privacy, the potential for abuse of personal information, and any legal liability Internet companies and social networking services might incur.

One oft-cited complaint about Facebook’s practices is the service’s offer to enable users to “invite” their friends to participate in Facebook by uploading their email addresses to the service; Facebook then sends membership solicitations to those addresses. (Similar practices are common throughout the industry, and played a roll in the roundly negative reaction to the launch of Google’s Buzz.) Facebook has recently introduced a way for European users to opt out of its invitation program.

The legal landscape surrounding privacy in Europe is substantially different from the United States. In the U.S., companies like Facebook and Google have built substantial portions of their empires on the notion of users offering personal data and information in exchange for free services—the companies market the demographically-interesting information to advertisers. In Europe, however, privacy is defined as a fundamental individual right.