The Committee of Experts on New Media (the “Expert Committee”) of the Council of Europe (“CoE”) has issued draft recommendations and guidelines regarding the protection of human rights by search engines and social networking providers. The draft recommendations and guidelines observe that the way in which search engines and social networking providers operate impacts various human rights, especially the rights to freedom of expression and information and the right to privacy and data protection. Current drafts of both sets of recommendations and guidelines are open for public consultation and comments until March 18, 2011.

The recommendations and guidelines for search engines address notice and consent requirements in the context of behavioral advertising and online profiles and encourage increased transparency about how search engines select, rank, block and filter search results. Other topics pertaining to search engines in the guidelines include the rights of users to access and control their data, data minimization (such as maximum data retention periods for information about searches), the risks of censorship and the need for adequate sanctioning mechanisms in co- and self-regulation initiatives.

Transparency also forms a central theme of the recommendations and guidelines for social networking providers. The draft guidelines provide, for example, that social networking providers should provide information to users about the need to obtain consent prior to posting personal information about others, the difference between private and public communications, and the possible consequences of unlimited access to the users’ profile and communications. According to the guidelines, this information should be tailored to each specific social network (e.g., through plain language notices or short videos rather than in more formal terms and conditions). In addition, the recommendations and guidelines discuss a range of other topics, such as increased protection for minors, cooperation with law enforcement, rules for blocking content, behavioral advertising and the ability for users to completely delete their profiles and related data.

The Expert Committee will discuss the input received through the consultation process during its next meeting on March 28 and 29, 2011. It plans to submit the final texts of the recommendations and guidelines to the Committee of Ministers, the decision-making body of the CoE consisting of the Foreign Affairs Ministers of the CoE’s 47 Member States, by the end of 2011.

The draft recommendations and guidelines and further information regarding the public consultation are available here.