Last year Liberal Democrats took a principled stand against the “Snoopers’ Charter” – more formally called the draft Communications Data Bill. This added up to a defiant, important defence of citizens’ privacy rights in the face of a concerted (and ongoing) effort by the Home Office to undermine them.
Right now there is another, equally important, battle for our privacy going in the European Parliament. The same principles are at stake. Once again Liberal Democrats have a really important role in determining what sort of law we get.
The “Data Protection Regulation”, proposed by the European Commission and now being considered by MEPs in the Parliament, could give people more control over their data and hold those that collect and use it to account. For example, it would give us a stronger definition of consent, stronger rights to have our data erased, and enable us to find out about and challenge profiling.
This update is badly needed. Security expert Bruce Schneier this week said “the Internet is a surveillance state. Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, and whether we like it or not, we’re being tracked all the time.”
Too often we have no meaningful say over when we give away information about ourselves. It leaks out from our devices and the services and apps we use, sharing the sites we visit, the things we like or comment on, the prices we pay, the people we contact and the places we go. Too often we do not control how and by whom our personal information will be used. Too often the data is not secure enough, with abuses and mistakes going effectively unpunished.
The mass of personal data we leave behind is increasingly used by institutions and organisations to make many important decisions about us. These profiles affect everything from the marketing offers we receive through to the credit ratings and insurance decisions we are subject to. The information feeds those who wish to learn about our movements, personalities, histories, relationships.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Weak laws and weak enforcement created this situation. With strong political will, we can start to give people control over their data. That’s what the Regulation is about.
But it is coming under intense lobbying pressure from US data monopolies, the US government and the ad industry. They are seeking amendments that would, for example, weaken the definition of consent, undermine the rights to erasure and ‘portability’ and create broad ‘legitimate interest’ carve outs.
These lobbyists see privacy as a burden. Some of these businesses are built on the absence of meaningful privacy online, and their representatives are now telling EU law makers that we cannot have better privacy laws because it would harm their business. The tail is having a very good go at wagging the dog.
The result of their lobbying would be significantly weaker privacy rights for EU citizens. People would continue to unintentionally leave all sorts of personal data behind them from which businesses or governments are the main beneficiaries. We would miss a once in 20 years opportunity to build a data economy based on a respect for people’s privacy.
Putting people in control of their data is to give them a meaningful stake in the decisions that affect them. This principle should be an integral part of a liberal democratic digital economy. And the Data Protection Regulation is Europeans’ shot at getting this principle into law.
Achieving this will require strong political will as the Regulation travels through the European policy making process.
We are concerned that Liberal Democrats in the European Union might support the positions taken by industry. For example, on March 10th Baroness Ludford wrote to the Financial Times, saying:
…concerns have been put to me about aspects that are inflexible, bureaucratic or not user-friendly by European academic and medical researchers, business-to-business marketing companies, telecoms suppliers, insurance groups and banks, the CBI and Federation of Small Businesses well as – yes – American IT companies.
We were concerned at the failure to mention the interests of citizens. So last week Open Rights Group and Privacy International wrote to Baroness Ludford, urging her to support a strong Regulation that gives people more control over their personal information. You can read our letter on the ORG blog. We will be meeting Baroness Ludford to discuss our concerns soon.
Baroness Ludford’s position is extremely important. She sits on the LIBE Committee, which is the lead Committee in the European Parliament for the Regulation. They will vote on an opinion next month. Members are currently considering their position.
This is how Liberal Democrats in the UK can help us get a better law. If you want to see a strong Regulation that gives people control over their data, contacting Baroness Ludford as soon as possible to explain why would be extremely useful. You can contact her at her European Parliament email address: [email protected]
For more information on the key issues with the Regulation, we have produced a brief guide.
‘The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.
* Peter Bradwell is Policy Director at Open Rights Group, a digital rights campaign group.