27 January 2012
Table of content:
Safeguarding fundamental rights – Adapting EU data protection to the digital age to clear citizens' doubts about the cloud
In today's digital world of instant data exchange, rules to respect everybody's privacy are essential. This week the European Commission has proposed a set of reforms to modernise the existing framework of data protection. Dating back to 1995, the current system is not up to speed with the latest technological developments like social networking, cloud computing and online shopping. The new rules will give citizens the opportunity to control their data and to claim the 'right to be forgotten', once they no longer wish to see their data online.
As a matter of fact
The current EU Data Protection legislation dates from the very early days of the internet. In 1995 less than 1 % of Europeans used the world wide web. Today, the figure has risen to more than 97 %. There are 250 million Europeans who daily use the internet, leaving digital traces with every step they make.
Also, personal data has become one of companies' most valuable assets: the market for analysis of large sets of data is growing by 40% per year worldwide. The world wide web does not know any borders online. Today data can be stored in "clouds" anywhere around the globe, challenging data protection authorities to safeguard citizens' rights.
In view of these rapid, high tech developments the European Commission has presented proposals of how to update and streamline the existing, often fragmented rules that open up loopholes for misuse.
Data protection is a fundamental right. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights says that everybody has the right to the protection of personal data in all aspects of life: at home, at work, whilst shopping, when receiving medical treatment, at a police station or on the internet. Moreover, the Lisbon Treaty provides a legal basis for rules on data protection for all activities within the scope of EU law.
These are the main elements of the data protection reform of particular relevance to citizens:
A reinforced ‘right to be forgotten’ will help people to better manage data protection risks online: citizens will be able to delete their data if there are no legitimate grounds for retaining it.
Wherever consent is required for data to be processed, it will have to be given explicitly. In addition, citizens will have easier access to their own data and be able to more easily transfer personal data from one service provider to another.
Increased responsibility and accountability for those processing personal data: for example, companies and organisations must notify serious data breaches to individuals as soon as possible.
Citizens will be able to refer cases where their data has been breached or rules on data protection violated to the data protection authority in their country, even when their data is processed by an organisation based outside the EU.
EU rules must apply if personal data is processed abroad by companies that are active in the EU market – so EU citizens can be confident their data is still protected wherever it may be handled in the world.
In the spotlight: Cloud Computing
Cloud computing is "the practice of using a network of remote servers hosted on the internet to store, manage, and process data, rather than a local server or a personal computer" (Oxford Dictionary Online).
Examples of cloud computing services include online backup, social networking, file synchronisation and personal data storage.
The term "cloud" refers to the internet that is often depicted as a cloud in diagrams and presentations. The initial idea of cloud computing goes back to the early 1960s when the American computer scientist John Mc Carthy stated that computing should be available to everybody, like electricity. Cloud computing particularly developed during the last decade with the arrival of browser based applications – "apps".
Advantages of cloud computing are instant accessibility from anywhere around the world, low costs for companies and unlimited storage capacities. At the same time, the borderless features pose challenges to control the flow of data and to prevent misuse.
The European Commission is currently working on a European Cloud Computing Strategy to be proposed in 2012.
The move to modernise and better protect personal information stored online coincides with EU citizens' views on data protection as a recent Eurobarometer shows:
74% of Europeans think that disclosing personal data is increasingly a part of modern life. The most important reason for disclosures is to access an online service, for both social networking and sharing site users (61%) and online shoppers (79%).
At the same time, 72% of internet users are concerned that they give away too much personal data that are used by companies for other purposes – including search engines and social network.
Just over a quarter of social network users (26%) and even fewer online shoppers (18%) feel in complete control of their data.
75% want to be able to delete personal information online whenever they want to.
There is strong support for EU action: 90% of Europeans are in favour of equal data protection rights across Europe.
The European Commission will send the proposal to the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers for discussion. Two years after adoption by both institutions, the new EU laws will be enforced by all Member States.
European Commission website on the data protection reform: http://ec.europa.eu/justice/data-protection/
Homepage of Vice-President Viviane Reding, EU Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship: http://ec.europa.eu/reding
Countdown to the European Citizens' Initiative - Agenda-setting ideas soon on the table
In nine weeks' time, as of 1st April 2012, EU citizens will have the opportunity to help set the EU's agenda. The European Citizens' Initiative is the European Union's first instrument of participatory democracy. Enshrined as a citizens' right in the Lisbon Treaty, the EU Commission has worked with EU citizens, civil society organisations and Member States to create rules and procedures for the initiative, which the European Parliament and the Council adopted subsequently in the form of a Regulation. Most importantly, one million signatures will be required from citizens of at least seven EU Member States.
As a matter of fact
The European Commission has the right to propose laws in areas where the EU has the power, or competence, to act. Accordingly, in order to become a legal act at EU level, the theme of a European Citizens' Initiative must lie within the powers of the European Union. The European Union's areas of competence include the internal market, consumer protection, energy, agriculture, the environment and public health.
Citizens who want to launch a European Citizens' Initiative must check whether the European Commission has the right to act on the theme they wish to propose. For a list of the European Union's policy areas see here.
The European Citizens' Initiative is one of the major innovations of the Treaty of Lisbon. After entry into force of the Treaty on 1st December 2009, the concrete rules and procedures governing the initiative still had to be defined and agreed upon by the EU institutions.
Given the importance of the new right for citizens, the European Commission invited civil society, citizens and interested parties to share their views on how the citizens' initiative should work in practice.
The results of the public consultation, as well as the outcome of negotiations between the EU institutions, are set out in the form of an EU Regulation that the European Parliament and the Council adopted in February 2011. In accordance with this Regulation, European Citizens' Initiatives can be launched from 1st April 2012.
In the spotlight: Main rules and steps of the European Citizens' Initiative
Citizens' initiatives already exist in many EU Member States at national, regional and local level.
Austria, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and the Netherlands for example have a national citizens' initiative. Regional and local initiatives can take place in Germany, Sweden, Hungary, Luxembourg and Belgium for example.
In the history of participatory democracy there has not been any example of an initiative at transnational level yet. The European Citizens' initiative will be the first instrument inviting citizens from different countries to commonly propose a policy theme and to influence the political agenda.
When the European Commission adopts a legislative proposal in response to a citizens' initiative, the proposal will go through the decision-making procedure of the European Union. Hence to become law, the Members of the European Parliament and the Ministers of the Council will negotiate the proposal, and they will finally vote on it.
European Commission website on the European Citizens' Initiative: http://ec.europa.eu/citizens-initiative
Contact Europe Direct for questions on the EU Citizens' initiative: http://europa.eu/europedirect/index_en.htm
The online collection software: https://joinup.ec.europa.eu/software/ocs/release/100