“Free” online services and privacy law

One aspect of the seemingly free services we use every day (Facebook, Twitter, Google Search and many more) which people tend not to pick up on is that these services really are not free at all. While we don’t part with currency to use these services, we do part with our personal information in exchange for meaningful access to these services and what they can do for us. This isn’t necessarily bad but it is a reality on the social Web.

A number of local online services are similarly offered, ostensibly for free to users, and they leverage personal information in similar ways and for similar reasons. The anticipated Protection of Personal Information Bill deals with how personal information may be “processed” by various parties and is organised around a number of Information Protection Principles:

  1. Accountability;
  2. Processing limitation;
  3. Purpose specification;
  4. Further processing limitation;
  5. Information quality;
  6. Openness;
  7. Security safeguards; and
  8. Data subject participation.

These principles can be unpacked further to reveal a fair amount of specificity about what personal information can be processed, by whom and to what end. I’ll probably unpack many of these principles in the coming months and it will be interesting to see how the Protection of Personal Information Act will interface with the Consumer Protection Act when it is eventually passed and implemented.

What local companies offering “free” online services will need to bear in mind that is that they will have to cater for an increasingly complex legal framework if they rely on personal information to make their service offerings worthwhile from their perspective. This paradigm is also something users should understand and bear in mind when they use these services.

Mich Joel talks about this paradigm and how he fears it may endanger the Web’s social nature in his talk at TEDxConcordia recently.:

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