Electronic Design

Internet Firms May Face Tough New EU Data Privacy Safeguards

Google seemingly isn’t alone in its attempts to downgrade European data-privacy laws from their draconian state (as touted by many Internet businesses) to a more relaxed level. In my view, the Internet giants have little chance of achieving that ambition. Instead, they may find that Viviane Reding, the EU’s justice commissioner, is poised to take a more rigorous stance on privacy.

The whole Internet privacy wrangle is a long marathonesque story, with key players like Google and Facebook besieged by a maze of privacy controversy in the past few years. And because data-privacy laws differ amongst European countries, the story could keep trundling on for years.

Beyond the morass surrounding actual European privacy laws, there are also the widely variegated national attitudes of European citizens regarding invasion of privacy. The Germans, for example, are extremely strict on data-privacy laws and the protection of personal information. This fact was demonstrated when more than 250,000 Germans told Google they were not happy about their homes being displayed on “Street View.” Ultimately, the German government stepped in and told Google it had to offer people the opportunity of opting out of Street View. Google complied.

But it’s not just Europe where Street View ran into a cul-de-sac. Last year, Canada's privacy commissioner said Google’s accidental gathering of personal data while snapping images amounted to a “serious violation” of its privacy laws. Also, Germans, for example, are extremely strict on data-privacy laws and the protection of personal information.

Many of these situations were sparked by Google’s admission that it had accidentally collected information from unsecured wireless networks during the time its Street View vehicles were combing the streets. This particular incident came to light during a routine audit by the Hamburg data authority.

Canadian authorities were further alarmed upon discovery of personal information captured by Google that included a list of names of people suffering from certain medical conditions. Canadian privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart maintained that it affected thousands of its citizens.

Here in the UK, authorities have been criticised for not taking a tougher stance on privacy invasion, with organizations calling for a tightening of the situation. In fact, no public body exists in the UK to investigate interception breaches, a failing that has prompted the European Commission to launch legal action against it.

The UK Government Home Office is currently consulting on how to ensure compliance with European legislation on the interception of communications.

Tough Stance From The EU

This is a wise move by the Home Office, given that Commissioner Reding is pushing for tougher privacy safeguards so that Internet users have more control over their personal data—data that’s collected, stored, mined, and could potentially be sold by companies like Facebook, Google, or any other site where users upload photos and disclose private details.

The new rules, expected to be in place later this year, could put the EU in a leading position regarding Internet privacy laws. They could even influence other countries, such as the United States, to follow suit.

What's more, the stronger EU stance on privacy may have a profound effect on Facebook or other companies of that ilk. The key element would be a citizen’s right to totally and unambiguously disappear from the data records of these organisations, if they so wish.

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