With social networking sites proliferating across international boundaries, privacy and data protection concerns are becoming increasingly relevant. With these concerns in mind, the Article 29 Working Party, an independent European advisory body on data protection and privacy, adopted an opinion on online social networking on June 12, 2009.

As noted by the Working Party, the personal information a user posts online combined with the data outlining the user’s actions and interactions with other people can create a rich profile of that person’s interests and pose major risks such as identity thefts, loss of employment or business opportunities.  In this new era of social networking, no longer are even the most secretive organizations free from the public eye. Just last Sunday, a British tabloid published revealing photos, taken off of a social networking website, of the soon-to-be chief of the country’s foreign intelligence service, MI6.


The opinion focuses on how the operation of social networking sites can meet the requirements of EU data protection legislation, and advises social network service (hereafter “SNS”) providers what measures must be in place to ensure compliance. Companies that make applications for or utilize social networking sites should be mindful of their obligations under EU law, as well.


An SNS is defined as an online communication platform which enables individuals to join or create networks of like-minded users. Usually, these services invite users to provide personal data, post their own material, and interact with other contacts who use the service. Well-known examples would include Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace. Under the EU’s 1995 Data Protection Directive (95/46/EC) (the "Directive), SNS providers are considered data controllers, which are subject to several of the Directive’s provisions, even if their headquarters are outside the European Economic Area. Among their obligations:


Security and Default Privacy Settings – Data controllers must take technical and organizational measures that will maintain the security of the users.  The Working Party recommends that SNS providers offer default privacy settings that restrict viewing the user’s profile to self-selected contacts.


Information to be Provided by SNS – SNS providers must inform users of their identity and their purposes in using personal data. The Working Party recommends that providers inform users of the privacy risks both to users and third parties of uploading information.  If third party information or pictures are uploaded, it should be done with that individual’s consent. They should also provide information and adequate warning to users about privacy risks when uploading data on the SNS.


Sensitive Data – Data revealing racial or ethnic origin, political opinions, religious or philosophical beliefs, union membership, health, or sex life may only be published with the explicit consent from the data subject or if he has made the data public himself. It is therefore incumbent upon the SNS to make it clear that answering any questions regarding such sensitive data is completely voluntary.


Processing Data of Non-Members – SNS providers may not use independently gathered information to create profiles for those who are not members of the service.


Third Party Access – When SNS providers offer additional applications on their service by third parties, or make their service available on third party hardware (mobile phones) or software (outside websites), they should ensure that the third parties only have access to necessary personal data and provide a mechanism whereby users can report concerns about applications.


Legal Grounds for Direct Marketing – Marketing activity by SNS providers is permissible, but it must comply with the Data Protection and ePrivacy Directives.


Retention of Data – Personal data of users should not be kept after their accounts are deleted.  When a user is inactive for a period of time, his profile should become invisible to the outside world and eventually the user should be notified that the data will be deleted.


Respecting the Rights of Users – Members and non-members whose information is processed by an SNS should have rights to access, correct, and delete their data. Further, because data is not to exceed the purposes for which it is being collected, SNS providers should consider giving users the choice of using pseudonyms in place of their real names.


Protecting Children – SNS providers should be especially attentive to protecting the data of minors. The Working Party recommends not asking minors for sensitive data in subscription forms, not directly marketing to minors, ensuring the prior consent of parents before subscribing, having suitable degrees of separation between communities of children and adults, and providing adequate age verification software.


Users of social networking sites are considered data subjects rather than data controllers, so they are generally exempt from the above responsibilities. However, this is not always the case. When a user processes personal data for more than purely personal or household activity, he or she is no longer covered by the so-called “household exemption” that excepts him or her from the Directive’s mandates. Examples of non-personal activity are using the SNS on behalf of a company or association, using the SNS mainly as a platform to advance commercial, political, or charitable goals, or having a high number of contacts, some of whom he may not actually know. When this occurs, the user assumes the full responsibilities of a data controller.


Thus, companies that do not operate an SNS may still governed by the Directive merely by virtue of using the service. Where the company is collecting personal information (e.g. through applications or otherwise), it should take heed of the foregoing recommendations, such as getting consent from parties before publishing their personal information and images, only using necessary personal data, deleting personal information after an account has been removed, and having a mechanism users can employ to voice privacy concerns about the application.


Proskauer summer associate Adam Freed contributed to this post.