Facebook has once again slipped in that treacherous privacy quagmire.

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facebook (Photo credit: dkalo)

The only positive element of last week’s news that the social network conducted emotional research on unwitting users, for Facebook at least, was that the news broke during a holiday week. Most users were more concerned with getting out of town than getting online, leaving it to the tech press to vent their latest frustrations against the company.

In treating its users like guinea pigs without their knowledge or consent, Facebook has accidentally exposed yet another privacy issue that will stoke the conversation around empowering users to opt out of  online activities that don’t meet with their approval.

Although the study dates back to 2012, its publication comes hot on the heels of a European court ruling that forces search engines to consider removal requests for links that individual users believe breach their privacy rights.

Google’s early efforts to handle this new requirement have been less than satisfactory for some, leading to accusations that the company is deliberately trying to undermine the so-called ‘Right to be Forgotten’ ruling. If you’ve ever told a kid to clean their room, only to find it worse than when they started, you’ll get the idea here.

Neither of these two tech giants, so often rivals but closely aligned when it comes to the question of setting information free, have a particularly stellar track record on the subject. Facebook privacy issues seem to crop up every few months, be it the expansion of the data it collects from users for ad delivery, or the positively Orwellian idea that it can listen in on our mobile devices (overblown, if not impossible).

And this isn’t the first time that Google has pleaded ignorance when it comes to enforcing individual rights to control private information. The struggle of artists to protect their intellectual property on platforms like YouTube and in search listings to piracy sites exemplifies the search giant’s ability to set itself up for failure, when the situation suits it.

The European Union has been considerably more aggressive on the latter, pointing to a potential new clash over Facebook privacy, if it feels that the company is ignoring its responsibilities to the region. Meanwhile, lawmakers in the U.S. continue to find themselves between a rock and a hard place, with both the technology and intellectual property lobby groups proving strong voices in Washington D.C.

The fundamental question cuts to the core of online privacy: who should be responsible for protecting users from negative associations and manipulation?

While the U.S. is still weighing up the need to protect the public at the same time as it maintains innovation, Europe is erring heavily on the side of regulating companies like Facebook and Google. If they allow these high-profile privacy issues continue to flow, the gap will only widen between two markets that are vital to their success.