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Europe Demands Privacy Standards for Social Networking Sites


European privacy regulators issued an opinion this week on how European privacy laws should apply to social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. This comes a week after regulators expressed privacy concerns over the popular genealogy application We’re Related on Facebook (see Privacy Fears Raised Over Genealogy Application on Facebook). European privacy laws tend to be much more expansive than other parts of the world, including the United States. As a result, European privacy regulators are in many cases setting the standards for privacy on the internet.

The guidelines suggested by the European privacy regulators are:
• Social networking sites should have clearly identified privacy settings.
• The default privacy setting should be set to high.
• Users should be able to limit what data is disclosed to third parties (the source of the privacy issue with the We’re Related application on Facebook).
• Social network sites should not retain personal information after the user deletes their account.
• Social network sites should delete accounts that remain inactive for a long period of time.
• Users should be allowed to use a pseudonym.
• Users should be advised that they cannot upload pictures without the consent of the individuals in the picture.
• The use of sensitive information such as race, religious or political views should be restricted when advertising is directed towards specific users.

What differentiates social network sites from other parts of the internet is that social network sites depend on the interaction of people who use their real name, real address, real biography and real details about their life. People tend to be much more anonymous in much of the rest of the internet.

Social network sites are a boon to genealogists and show great promise for the chance to interact at a social level, but they also exhibit great risk of abuse because of the amount of personal information they contain. For example, Facebook drew massive amounts of criticism earlier this year when they attempted to quietly change the Terms of Use of their website to give themselves perpetual rights to data collected from users (see Who Owns Your Online Genealogy Information).

Genealogists deal in a significant amount of personal information (both their own and information on other family members) due to the nature of the activity. Hopefully, the action by European privacy regulators should serve as a wake-up call to the genealogy community to carefully consider the potential downside of posting personal information online.

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