Privacy chiefs keep watch over Facebook

Thu Apr 22, 2010 12:06pm EDT
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By Sangeeta Shastry

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Over the past six years, social networking has been the Internet's stand-out phenomenon, linking up more than one billion people eager to exchange videos, pictures or last-minute birthday wishes.

The sites, led by Facebook with more than 400 million users, rely in large part on people's willingness to share a wealth of personal information with an ever-expanding network of "friends," either ones they actually know and see from time to time, or those they have met virtually through the Internet.

Members' eagerness to add contacts has given the sites a powerful global reach, attracting users from 7 to 70 years old, from skateboarders to investment bankers, and with them a deep and potentially rich vein of targeted advertising revenue.

But at the same time it has concentrated vast amounts of data -- telephone numbers and addresses, people's simple likes and dislikes -- on the servers of a small number of companies.

In Facebook's case, the social networking tsunami has spread in barely six years from the Harvard dorm room of founder Mark Zuckerberg, 25, to envelope almost half a billion people -- enough to be the world's third most populous country.

That in turn has raised profound privacy issues, with governments in Europe and North America and Asia concerned about the potential for data theft, for people's identities to be mined for income or children to be exploited via the Internet.

Data protection authorities from a range of countries held a teleconference this week to discuss how they can work together to protect what they see as a steady erosion of privacy, and the European Union too is studying what role it can play.

They may not be able to hold the social networking wave back, but policymakers are looking at what they can do to limit what they see as the "Big Brother"-like role of some sites. A showdown between privacy and Internet freedom is looming.   Continued...

<p>A woman displays her page on the social networking site Facebook, while attending school in Los Angeles January 26, 2010. REUTERS/Phil McCarten</p>