By Jose-Luis Piar Maas

An important Resolution on Privacy Protection in Social Network Services was adopted at the 30th International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners in Strasbourg on 17 October 2008.

The resolution follows the guide-lines set in the "Report and Guidance on Privacy in Social Network Services" (Rome Memorandum) of the 43rd meeting of the International Working Group on Data Protection in Telecommunications (3-4 March 2008), and in the ENISA Position Paper No. 1 "Security Issues and Recommendations for Online Social Networks" (October 2007). It includes a number of recommendations that must necessarily adopt the form of legal regulations or must be incorporated into the privacy policies of service providers. They represent a significant stride forward because, at a worldwide level, steps have been taken with the firm goal of minimising the risks that social networks pose for data protection. And these risks are not always easy to imagine.

The starting point is the fact that "individuals face the possible loss of control over how data will be used by others once they are published on the network: while the ‘community' basis of social networks suggests that publishing one's own personal data would just resemble sharing information with friends as if used face-to-face, profile information may in fact be available to an entire subscriber community (numbering in the millions)."

The resolution includes two recommendations for users and 10 for service providers. The former have to do with the publication of information, and they point out that "users of social network services should consider carefully which personal data—if anypublish in a social network profile. In particular, minors should avoid revealing their home address or telephone number. Besides, users should also respect the privacy of others. They should be especially careful with publishing personal information about somebody else (including pictures or even tagged pictures) without that other person's consent.

In relation to service providers, it is assumed that providers of social network services have a special responsibility to consider and act in the interests of individuals using social networks. In addition to meeting the requirements of data protection law they should also implement the recommendations that are included in the resolution. Said recommendations refer to the following aspects:

  1. Privacy regulations and standards. Providers operating in different countries or even globally should respect the privacy standards of the countries where they operate their services.
  2. User information. Providers should inform their users about the processing of their personal data in a transparent and open manner.
  3. User control. Providers should further improve user control over the use of their profile data by community members. As a minimum, opt-out for general profile data, and opt-in for sensitive profile data (e.g. political opinion, sexual orientation) and traffic data should be offered.
  4. Privacy-friendly default settings. Providers should offer privacy-friendly default settings for user profile information. Such settings must be specifically restrictive when a social network service is directed at minors.
  5. Security. Providers should continue to improve and maintain security of their information systems and protect users against fraudulent access to their profile. 
  6. Access rights. Providers should grant individuals the right to access and, if necessary, correct all their personal data held by the provider. 
  7. Deletion of user profiles. Providers should allow users to easily terminate their membership, delete their profile and any content or information that they have published on the social network. 
  8. Pseudonymous use of the service. Providers should enable the creation and use of pseudonymous profiles as an option, and encourage the use of that option. 
  9. Third-party access. Providers should take effective measures to prevent spidering and/or bulk downloads (or bulk harvesting) of profile data by third parties.
  10. Indexibility of user profiles. Providers should ensure that user data can only be crawled by external search engines if a user has given explicit, prior, and informed consent. Non-indexibility of profiles by search engines should be a default setting.

Jose-Luis Piar Maas, Ph.D. is an attorney at Piar Maas & Asociados Law Firm, and a professor of administrative law. He also is the former director of the Spanish Agency for Data Protection and former Vice-Chairman of the Article 29 Working Party and Honorific President of the Ibero-American Network of Data Protection. He can be reached at jlpinar@pmasociados.com.


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