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13th Apr 2024

EU to press for 'right to be forgotten' online

  • 'Augmented reality' a-la Google: 'You're never lonely ... you're never bored ... you're never out of ideas' (Photo: Spencer E Holtaway)

The EU is in the process of revamping its data privacy rules dating back to 1995 so as to encompass social networks, online data aggregators and the way prosecutors and policemen across the bloc handle personal records.

The Facebook generation knows it. Everything you've posted online can and will be used against you at some point. People have been fired for the party pictures or unthoughtful jokes they've posted online.

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Deleting a Facebook account does not help. According to the popular website, users can "reactivate" their accounts at any time: Facebook does not erase your data, its simply hides it from others.

In a bid to stem these developments, the commission is now revising a 15-year-old "Data Protection Directive," drafted before the Google and Facebook booms. New legislative proposals are set to be put forward mid-2011, but the commission has already adopted a "strategy" on how to go about the changes.

One of the principles mentioned is the "right to be forgotten" online, meaning that people who want their online profiles deleted "should be able to rely on the service provider to remove personal data, such as photos, completely."

Users should also be better informed about how their internet traffic is being monitored for so-called behavioural advertising, for instance when online retailers use previously viewed websites as a basis to make product suggestions.

As a result of increased EU powers in the field of police and criminal justice under the new EU treaty, the commission will also strengthen data privacy rules when it comes to these areas.

The data retention directive, obliging telecom operators to store telephone and email records for up to two years for law enforcement purposes, will also come under review.

The same applies to agreements with other countries, such as the US, involving transfers of passenger or banking data.

"The protection of personal data is a fundamental right," EU justice and fundamental rights commissioner Viviane Reding said in a statement. "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 globalisation."

EU officials presenting the strategy also emphasised the need to have stronger data protection authorities and a more harmonised enforcement of rules across the bloc. They are keen to avoid cases like Google Street View, where the Czech Republic and Greece prohibited the US company from taking pictures of houses and streets, and 244,000 Germans requested their properties to be blurred from the service.

Privacy experts and consumer rights' groups were thrilled at the proposal. "Even if the 'right to be forgotten' would be a weak one in the final legislation, it is a step forward to at least develop the concept of it," Paul De Hert, a law professor specialised in data privacy at the Free University of Brussels told this website.

"It is the right time to regulate now and come up with good ideas and I am very happy with these proposals," Mr De Hert said.

BEUC, an EU umbrella organisation for consumer protection also welcomed th move, especially after a series of privacy breaches which "fuel a lack of consumer confidence."

"The Commission has planted the flag showing that the consumer's right to privacy should not be undermined merely because it has become easier and more profitable to break it in the virtual world," Monique Goyens the head of BEUC said in a statement.

But the proposals are not likely to be welcomed on the other side of the Atlantic, where companies like Google and Facebook have their seats.

According to Google CEO Eric Schmidt: "In a world of asynchronous threats, it is too dangerous for there not to be some way to identify you." Speaking at the 2010 Techonomy conference, Mr Schmidt argued that there were dangers to having complete anonymity online and that governments may eventually put an end to anonymity, the Huffington Post reported. "We need a [verified] name service for people," he said. "Governments will demand it."

At a different event, in September 2010, the Google CEO also shared his view of the future.

"It's a future where you don't forget anything," he said. "In this new future you're never lost ... We will know your position down to the foot and down to the inch over time ... Your car will drive itself, it's a bug that cars were invented before computers ... you're never lonely ... you're never bored ... you're never out of ideas." Schmidt called this scenario "an augmented version of humanity."

Seen from the American perspective, businesses find it difficult to navigate between the EU laws and the patchwork of national data protection requirements, one US official familiar with this dossier told EUobserver.

"The lack of harmonisation among the member states in terms of interpreting the directive and transposing the directive into national laws led to uncertainty among compliance officers, privacy officers, and legal counsel. These ambiguities result in confusion and a lack of clarity with regard to obligations the business community must meet," said the official, who requested not to be named.

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