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German privacy watchdogs agree social networking ground rules

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Social networking sites are not permitted to store information about people's use of the sites beyond the duration of a particular session, according to a panel of Germany's data protection officials.

Companies behind social networks such as MySpace and Facebook must also tell users what happens to any data that is collected and tell them how they can influence the use of that data.

The principles were laid down by the German Düsseldorfer Kreis (GDK), a panel of all the German data protection authorities. They laid down eight principles of operation for social networking sites to keep them in line with data protection law, according to the Data Protection Review operated by the data protection agency of Madrid.

The principles covered what data can be collected under which circumstances, and what it can then be used for.

One principle said that the sites could only store personal information that was not a part of the user's actual social networking profile beyond the end of a session if it needed it for billing purposes. Since most social networks are free that is unlikely to be a common situation.

The principles also said that any information that is gathered can only be used for marketing if the user has provided consent for that to happen.

The rules also made it clear to social network operators that they could not use laws derived from the Data Retention Directive to justify keeping information. The GDK said that there is no legal foundation for storing data unless there is a specific law that says so.

The application of the Directive to online services has previously been the subject of debate between privacy regulators and Google. The search giant had claimed that it had to keep logs of search queries because it was required to by the Directive.

The Directive tells countries to pass laws ordering telecoms companies to keep records of user activity for between six and 24 months in case the information is useful in criminal prosecutions.

Privacy regulators said that the Directive only applied to telecoms service providers and not to companies which provide content online.

Google conceded in September of this year that its keeping of data was not mandated by the Directive, as it had previously argued.

The GDK's principles also include instructions to social networking operators to adequately protect private information with technical security measures and to set the standard privacy settings so that they protect users' privacy as efficiently as possible.

The GDK also said that social networking companies must let users delete their profile.

The GDK is an informal grouping of the regulators who monitor data protection in the private sector in Germany.

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