European Union Aiming To Create New Privacy Laws

Iohana Georgescu

Written by Iohana Georgescu
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Despite all of the benefits that the Internet has to offer, certain web sites may threaten each user’s privacy rights. As a result of all of the complaints and mis-haps from the past year or more, the European Union has announced on Thursday a list of recommendations to the update privacy laws. The update would make it easier for users to delete any information on them posted on the web. In the issued paper, the EU’s data protection authorities claims that these recommendations are meant to be used for creating new privacy laws in 2011.

According to the Washington Post, a review of the current laws that are over 15 years old has led regulators to seriously consider new laws which take into account the ways in which data is protected on social networks such as Facebook or cloud computing services like Google’s e-mail and documents. Viviane Reding, EU commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship pointed out that the protection of personal data is a fundamental right. “To guarantee this right, we need clear and consistent data protection rules. We also need to bring our laws up to date with the challenges raised by new technologies and globalization” she added.

The paper now recommends laws which will allow users to access and delete personal data in an easy and convenient manner. Websites will be able to take up requests for deleting data from users and they’ll get deadlines to respond to each request. Web sites ought to list clear and to the point information regarding how much of users’ personal information is used and how that information can be deleted. Another recommendation involves classifying some information as “sensitive” data. For example genetic information could be included in that category.

This type of information should have stronger protections. The paper notes that there were many cases where individuals were affected by an infringement of data protection rules. In order to ensure that those rules are always applied, it’s thus important that “effective provisions on remedies and sanctions” are implemented. If you’re wondering what type of effective enforcement provisions the EU is talking about, they may include criminal sanctions when privacy is breached in a very serious manner. Data protection rules are also meant to apply to how law enforcement uses any data on the web.

Compared to the US or other parts of the world, Europe is quite strict when it comes to protecting the privacy of citizens. Experts have concluded that in the US the laws of privacy have been too favorable to businesses who made a point of how important it is to collect data and deliver targeted advertising on the web. As Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the ACLU said, part of this difference is cultural and another part of it is that US and Europe have completely different privacy regimes. “The European model is extensive data protection in private information, and the U.S. model is piecemeal” he added.

What determined the EU to try and adopt a new set of laws? It’s quite simple. Google’s Street View, for instance, was hit by a ton of complaints from multiple countries in the past year. The latest to complain about how Street View vehicles infringe on people’s privacy rights was the UK. A short while ago British regulators announced that Google broke the country’s data protection laws when its vehicles picked up Internet data from local WiFi networks by mistake while trying to snap photos for the mapping feature.

While the UK Information Commissioner’s Office said that the search engine giant won’t be fined for this accident, the regulator will definitely audit the company’s data protection practices and Google has to assure them that another privacy breach won’t happen ever again. The company announced a short while ago on its official blog that the cars had picked up some data (not entirely fragmentary and partially including e-mails, passwords and URLs) by mistake and that its goal is to delete the data as soon as possible as well as implement better rules to ensure that all staff will be more privacy-aware in the future.

Compared to UK authorities, the US Federal Trade Commission closed its investigation of the Google situation right after the company came up with a public apology. The FTD decided to drop everything on the basis that Google promised to change its behavior by deleting the data in question. I’m personally not here to decide what’s right or wrong, especially when it comes to the decision of various countries’ regulators, but it’s safe to say at this point that the mindset of the US regulators is utterly different from the one of European ones.

On top of Google’s mischief in Europe and several other countries outside the continent (at least the company won’t receive any complaints in Antarctica where its Street View vehicles recently recorded data), Facebook was busted for sharing user data with advertisers. Some of the site’s third party applications (most of the top 10 ones, including Zynga’s Farmville) would share UID (user identification data) with various companies. The world’s largest social networking site was accused of not respecting users’ privacy or setting up appropriate rules and regulations on multiple occasions. At the end of October Facebook took several steps to avoid sharing this kind of info with random ad companies. The company’s policy will be clarified and re-presented to developers while a lot of work will also be done with web browser makers to try and prevent this type of data transfer in the future.

As you can easily tell, despite all the safety and privacy features, a large number of web services aren’t all that private. Obviously, something has to be done regarding this and more regulators as well as the companies behind the services will try to come up with various solutions until they manage to deliver the all the privacy Internauts need. The only question that remains is, should people be educated regarding their privacy rights and proper conduct on the web as well? There are plenty of people who share all of the information under the sun then act surprised when that information is displayed on one website or another.11

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