Article by By Avv. Felix Hofer2
Reports and statistics inform us periodically about the booming impact of social forums, -platforms or –networks on Netizens all over the World. Europe clearly doesn't go exempt from the effects of such phenomenon: according to survey results published in Spring 2009 Facebook ranks as the number one social network in Europe with an incredible share of 4.9% of the time spent on-line by Internet users3. While in a country like the United Kingdom, the popular social network had been able to achieve in 2008 the remarkable target of about 22 million of unique visitors per month, even in geographic regions with significantly lower Internet use Facebooks' popularity simply exploded: in Italy, a country behind most of all other EU member states in Internet usage, the social network had approximately 2 million registered users in 2008, but 6.5 million twelve months later4. During the same period the number of unique monthly visitors has increased from 382.000 up to over 10 million5! In a recent statement a FaceBook manager has claimed that the network "...has surpassed 100 million active mobile users worldwide".
Given these figures it's definitely no surprise that companies from various industry sectors are keen on trying to develop potential business applications with a specific focus on social network users. Who wouldn't like to reach out to and touch base with such an audience (and basin of potential customers)? We've therefore been noticing increased efforts for communicating with the people present on social networks, for monitoring their habits and views, for influencing their opinions and for directing their spending power. Companies targeting 'social net-workers' have started thinking about how to measure the effectiveness of their marketing efforts towards the new business environment. In parallel, they have also learned – sometimes in very unpleasant ways - to fear the terrific rampant impact, which their brands can easily suffer from negative comments posted on social networks both, by upset, unsatisfied or disappointed customers as well as by ranting individuals.
Again, no surprise that the booming phenomenon of social networks has also attracted the attention of lawmakers, authorities, watchdogs and groups advocating specific interests.
Increasing concern has arisen about aspects6 such as:
data safety (frequently visitors got hit by identity theft and frauds), access related problems for certain categories of visitors (e.g. minors uploading or becoming exposed to improper content7 or female, young or elderly visitors establishing dangerous contacts or entering into risky relations), unforeseen side effects deriving from on-line posts (an (in the author's opinion) innocent and funny picture taken at the office's Christmas party and uploaded to a social platform could encounter the employer's interest and disciplinary action; the same goes for an employee supposedly on illness leave, but actually blogging about the good time he's enjoying on his surfboard in an exotic location)8, additional risks both technology related as well as affecting individuals' social relations, the fact that not only 'diamonds', but also content posted on-line 'are forever' (it's becoming obvious that personal information posted to social networks is no longer under individual's control and may stay and resist on-line forever). 4. Among such risks those referring to improper use of private information posted by users on social networks have quickly gained a prevailing position.
During their 30th International Conference9 the Data Protection Commissioners of the States members to the European Union, while expressly acknowledging the immense potential and the importance of social networks as a communication tool, did also voice their strong concern about subscribers' interaction "based on self-generated personal profiles, which support an unprecedented level of disclosure of personal information about the individuals concerned (and others)"10. The Commissioners therefore addressed both, users of social networks as well as service providers by recommending them some 'golden rules' for on-line activities.
Users were therefore invited to:
carefully select which personal data (if any) to be posted on a social network, bear in mind other individuals' expectation to privacy when publishing information about them, while providers were reminded to:
comply with privacy standards in place, as set by country's Information Commissioner, inform users adequately about use of posted data, possible consequences of their publishing and security risks, favour to a maximum extent users' control on their data and profiles, offer users privacy-friendly default settings, constantly improve systems' security in order to prevent fraudulent access, granting users' right to access, control and correct their personal data, offer suitable means for deleting personal profiles and information once membership is terminated, enable the creation and encourage the use of pseudonyms, prevent uncontrolled third party access and...