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Facebook, German Regulator Reach Friend-Finder Deal

Facebook Inc. reached an agreement with the City of Hamburg’s data-protection agency to limit the use of e-mail addresses of people who aren’t members of the social network.

Under the deal, Facebook can use addresses of non-members only for its friend-finding function, the Hamburg data-protection agency said in an e-mailed statement today. The Palo Alto, California-based company must inform non-members by e-mail explaining why their addresses are used and how they can block that use for privacy, according to the statement.

“Whoever objects, can block the use of his e-mail address in the friend-finding function,” the agency said. “A more far-reaching solution, like totally abandoning the use of third persons’ data, wasn’t feasible in the negotiations. It also would hardly have been attainable for legal reasons.”

Facebook, owner of the world’s most popular social-networking site, has been under pressure over its privacy policies. Ilse Aigner, the Germany’s minister for consumer protection, told the newspaper Tagesspiegel on Jan. 6 that the company has so far “not taken protection of the private sphere very seriously.” In the U.S., the company has expanded its Washington office and consulted with privacy advocates to address future regulations.

Facebook is “pleased” with the outcome of negotiations with the regulator, the company said in an e-mailed statement.

Under the accord, reached after “lengthy” negotiations, Facebook must grant members control over how addresses imported by them are used, the regulator said. Facebook must also warn users about the “special responsibility they have when importing addresses and inviting others” to the network, according to the regulator.

“Numerous” people complained that they get unsolicited invitations to join Facebook and also suggestions about people they may know, the Hamburg regulator said. For them “it was deeply disquieting that they didn’t know how Facebook could learn that they actually knew these persons,” the agency said.

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