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Consumer group preps legal challenge to Facebook terms

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A Norwegian consumer protection agency is preparing a legal challenge to Facebook and other social networking companies, accusing them of operating "in a legal vacuum and irrespective of norms and standards".

Forbrukerrådet, the Norwegian Consumer Council, has studied the privacy policies and terms and conditions of social networking sites and says that many do not properly protect Norwegian users and do not comply with Norwegian law.

"There are general principles of fair contracts and privacy that must apply also in an online environment," said the Consumer Council's assistant director Hans Marius Graasvold. "Nothing has changed in that respect, except the online entrepreneurs at one point just stopped caring about the law.”

“We can not let go of basic rights that have been built up over time, just because the technological development currently seems to have set us back," he said. "Consumer ombudsmen and the data inspectorates need to step up to the test."

The Council and research institute SINTEF Technology conducted a year-long study into how Norwegians use social networking services and how this relates to the terms and conditions of those services.

"On a daily basis consumers face excessive terms and conditions when using their favourite social networks, search engines and email services," said a Council statement. "The study confirms the general belief that next to no one actually reads these terms, and even fewer come close to understanding them. To top it off, all of the social networks that were put under scrutiny by the NCC flunked the 'fair contract' and 'privacy' test."

The Council said that it is currently preparing complaints against Facebook and several other sites.

The Council was the body which raised legal objections to Apple's iTunes online music shop and the fact that it tied music sold there to Apple's iPod music players. The practice was declared illegal by the Norwegian Consumer Ombudsman. Apple later abandoned the technology tying the music to its players.

The Council's Graasvold said that Norwegian law must apply to services marketed to and used in Norway and that users of the services must have greater access to data held by companies that concerns them.

"If an online service site aims specifically at the Norwegian market, as is the case for Facebook, Norwegian case law establishes legal obligations under Norwegian law," he said. "Then the table is set for [regulator] action. We believe that it is time for [regulators] to enforce the principles that a person shall have the right to know what kind of personal information is registered and stored online, and have a realistic chance of rectifying or delete information that is wrongful."

The Council also recently trained its sights on Amazon, claiming that its Kindle electronic book reading device was too closely tied to the Amazon online shop.

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