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Globe editorial

Cyberspace is no place to be private Add to ...

Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart has raised valid concerns about the way Facebook protects - or fails to protect - users' privacy. But by taking the company so stridently to task, she risks absolving from all privacy-protecting responsibility people who choose to put the intimate details of their lives online.

In a report released on Thursday, Ms. Stoddart found Facebook gives third parties too much under-regulated access to users' information and needlessly holds on to personal details of people who have deactivated their accounts or died. She also slammed the way Facebook allows users to upload the personal information of people who don't use the site.

It isn't clear what Ms. Stoddart can do, if she isn't satisfied with what the company comes up with in the month it has to respond. It's doubtful the Federal Court has the jurisdiction (or the desire) to shut down Facebook's Canadian operations - or any inclination to risk the uproar that would likely be caused by cutting off the millions of addicted Canadians registered with the site.

Ms. Stoddart's concerns are justified: Facebook and its affiliate applications gain sweeping and almost unrestricted access to individuals' personal information, with consent checkpoints that the casual or careless user may simply click through en route to a quiz or application.

The thought of one's online indiscretions remaining stored in cyberspace long after an account is deactivated is understandably off-putting; the idea of a deceased user's profile being turned into a memorial post-mortem without his or her explicit consent is downright creepy.

But Ms. Stoddart's findings, and her demands that Facebook tighten its privacy controls, ignore the fact that the purpose of a social-networking site is to facilitate social networking. Facebook provides a forum where users interact by sharing personal information; those users know full well when they register that others can see what they post - that's why they do it.

Anyone in need of a reminder of their online persona's far-reaching consequences got one during B.C.'s election campaign in April, when an NDP candidate, Ray Lam, stepped down over indiscreet photos on his Facebook profile.

At some point the "buyer beware" principle comes into play: People who don't want the guy behind the "What Harry Potter character are you?" application to know their phone numbers, or see their photos from last weekend's wild stag party, perhaps should think twice about posting those tidbits online in the first place.

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