New data privacy laws in European Union states have created just that – a digital ‘right’ to be forgotten. All countries doing business in EU member states will now need to get explicit opt-in permissions to collect data on users and will need to comply with users requests to have that data purged. Additionally, companies will face new requirements on reporting data breaches within some sane time frame, will need to designate ‘Data Protection Officers’, and will be required to draft clearer privacy policies, not that anyone ever reads those.
Briefly, it’s a radical answer to the onslaught of data-mining.
On the face, this all sounds great. Of course, major money stands to flow in government coffers for violations, and the state will enjoy daunting new powers to investigate. One is tempted to wonder if Europeans have gone from corporate frying pan to political fire.
The phrasing is, right off the bat, worrying. A ‘Right to be forgotten’ embodies in its very name an obligation on others to do the forgetting. And that is an entitlement. Who will be paying for this? On the surface, it seems that this law delivers a potentially crushing burden to businesses, requiring them to spend more time, money, and effort on getting explicit permission from users, on complying, and on ruthlessly purging data from the length and breadth of their reach.
Hold on a moment, though. What’s so absurd about an opt-in policy that aims for informed consent? It costs to be ethical, but that’s no excuse for getting up to hijinks. One could also say that the new right is more aptly termed a ‘Right to Purge’ or a ‘Right to Reclaim Private Data.’ No doubt, the new EU rules affirm ideas of privacy as a fundamental right, one linked to dignity, reputation, and control over personal information. Companies might whine – they already do – over all the effort they put into collating and maintaining ‘Personally Identifiable Information’ (PII), insisting they own data about their users. This has always stunk to me; it’s a bit like a burglar proclaiming he owns your stuff by virtue of all the work and and risk he took on to burgle you.
The flip side of this is, though, an economically unavoidable truth. Simply, if you aren’t paying for a service, then you are the service. The tangle of social networks, reward cards, and online services that are “free” are not, and never have been, any such thing. You pay with all the information they can gather on you. A world with data purge on demand has the possibility to be a world with a slowed pace of innovation and far fewer free services.
I say it has the possibility because, honestly, no one can say just yet. Perhaps what people want is the assurance that someone is watching out for them, that they have, at any time, the option to purge their electronic histories. It might turn out that the belief that companies are acting under the threat of fines and oversight will keep them to the straight and narrow. Again, it might turn out that people become, on the whole, even more careless about handing out personal information if they assume they can always take it back. This is a weird new coupling of market-based self-policing and questionable faith in the state to take care of all things. Especially from an American mindset a worldview in which the government is the greater threat to privacy.
What if this fear turns out to be well founded? What if the most insidious companies still maintain data, if governments use the law to gain even more access to data and more control, if the law is a feelgood shield to hide the reality of state surveillance? It’s already a problem that one of the biggest spenders on gobbling up data is the government, and that holds here and across the pond. It stands to reason that telling the state to ‘forget’ you won’t be an option. Equally bothersome, whatever money comes in, legitimate victims of privacy violations won’t see a dime. That’s ever the case with governments punishing crimes by fining Peter, sending Paul away with a apt on the head, and keeping the money.
In short, it’s easy to see how EU governments will benefit here, but it’s less clear how much this will do for individuals. One thing, though, does seem predictable. The U.S. is going to have to respond, one way or another. The first response has been tepid. Washington raised the same points I did – compliance costs, deleterious effect on innovation, the need to create an authority with the power to oversee the goody bag of new protections. Aside from vague promises of a tip-top policy at some point, that’s it.
In America, the reality is that companies are downright monstrous about letting users, even former users and those who already paid once for services, truly delete data. In the home of such devilish beasties as Google and FaceBook, this is a major consideration. Diminished luster and all, America’s answer to the privacy question will have global heft. Too, after a point, no answer becomes an answer.
Just as I worry the EU, while no doubt having made a mighty stride, will need to balance and refine its new law with some thought to market realities, I fear whatever Washington delivers will fall short in just the opposite direction – kowtowing to data greedy corporations with inadequate thought for us peons.
And what the peons? Is it, frankly, high time more of us began paying serious attention to what we do with our data? Could we have just a touch more judgment and foresight? If we each own our own data, already a prime assumption of privacy-obsessed critters such as myself, then oughtn’t we each to be the first guardians? Our new reality is a hyperlinked world with an unquenchable thirst for information and a distinct lack of ethical quandaries about getting it. It’s high time to adapt.
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UPDATE: Something apparently got messed up with the PayPal buttons during this past weekend’s database glitch – fixed now. Yes, it’s that time again — PPC will be conducting training classes for center-right activists on Saturday, April 20 and Saturday, April 27, at Independence Institute in Denver. The tentative class schedule is as follows: Saturday, [...]
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