- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A German government office is accusing Facebook of illegally accessing and saving the personal data of people who don’t use the site, the first potential legal action in the privacy-related firestorm involving the popular social-networking site.

Johannes Caspar of Hamburg’s data-protection office said Wednesday that he has initiated the legal proceedings under Germany’s strict privacy laws.

According to Mr. Caspar, Facebook could be fined tens of thousands of euros for saving private information of individuals who don’t use the site and haven’t granted it access to their details.

“We consider the saving of data from third parties, in this context, to be against data-privacy laws,” Mr. Caspar said in a statement.

Facebook has yet to respond to the accusations in court, but the company made a public statement Wednesday. 

Facebook has received a letter from the Hamburg Data Protection Officer. We are currently reviewing it and will readily respond to it within the given time frame. Millions of Germans come to Facebook each day to find their friends, share information with them and connect to the world around them,” said Andrew Noyes, Facebook’s public-policy communications manager.

The company has until Aug. 11 to determine whether to dispute the charges.

Facebook has faced a spate of recent privacy concerns. In April, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced a new feature called “Open Graph,” which essentially brought Facebook-like functionality to several websites. These sites are able to display and share users’ interests without their knowledge.

In May, a small privacy bug was found in the site’s “Preview My Profile” feature. The bug allowed some Facebook users’ live chat messages and pending “friend” requests to be made visible to their contacts. The user response to this glitch added to the mounting criticism of Facebook’s loose privacy controls.

Facebook responded to user concerns about privacy later in May by introducing more powerful controls for sharing personal information. According to its press-room website, more than 400 million people who use Facebook can control exactly who can view the information they share.

Mr. Zuckerberg says these privacy controls will allow his site’s users to share more comfortably.

“When we started Facebook, we built it around a few simple ideas,” said Mr. Zuckerberg. “When people have control over what they share, they want to share more. When people share more, the world becomes more open and connected.”