It might be not on the front page of newspapers but it is the hot topic these days Brussels: EU institutions are planning to modify the Data Protection Directive that has been in place for 18 years. The draft was put forward by the European Commission in January 2012 and it is still on the table of the Civil Liberties Committee of the European Parliament.

Disputes have recently intensified about the proposal. MEP-s diverge to what extent they should protect personal data and regulate the access to it; almost 4000 (!) amendments have been tabled so far. MEP-s, influenced by the lobbyists of some large American IT companies, such as E-bay and Amazon, are making huge efforts in arguing for the free access to the personal data by these companies. They underline that today’s business decisions are based on data sets, thus the limitation of data usage would undermine enterprise efficiency. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a business today without searching and storing information about the users. If consumer habits are wiped out, marketing cost would increase significantly.

What do cookies have to do with privacy?

Anyhow, even without search programs and data packages (cookies) stored in our computers, we leave a track when we pay by credit card or buy airplane ticket online. These digital or offline footprints have increasingly been part of modern life. The public seems to accept it: according to a Eurobarometer survey, 74% of Europeans see that disclosing personal information is an inherent part of today’s reality. There is no return to the pre-digital age and it is difficult to imagine everyday activities without sharing information on different channels and platforms.

On the other hand, civil movements, such as the British Privacy International and some MEP-s reveal another important approach, saying that the extensive data usage may hurt privacy.

They can, indeed, support their argument by another fact: 43% of European internet users say that they have been asked for more personal information than necessary. This argumentation says that the “victim” of the amendment of the current regulation would be the citizen who may lose his/her right to protect his/her private life. Eventually it may also jeopardise the fundamental rights and the democratic credibility of the EU as a whole. That is why the proponents of this approach argue for a strict regulation of personal data, including the “do not track” and the “right to forget” principles. These are featured in the original proposal of the European Commission and would stop the data collection and processing by the companies and institutions in case people want so. The data in this case will be deleted unless it is needed for historical, statistical, scientific or public health reasons.

Privacy vs. technology

Thus we see the confrontation of two approaches: a free and a more restrictive personal data management. In fact, both can be derived from the basic principles of the EU. The endpoint of the business-friendly approach is a more effective functioning of the single market, mostly thanks to stimulating innovation and growth. Meanwhile, the “privacy-rulers” want to protect the privacy, that is, the personal freedom of citizens, which is considered to be a fundamental right.

There is no hierarchy between these two principles when it comes to the EU’s initial aims. Ideally, a compromise should be reached soon by the European institutions. The current debates are pointing at stricter-than-before rules on one hand, and more effective implementation on the other. The negative utopia of George Orwell about ‘Big Brother’ watching all our steps will hopefully not become reality.

As for what can be expected, once the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee decides about the negotiating mandate of the Parliament, the final decision will be made by the Council in the second semester of this year, together with the approval of the Parliament. EU Member States will then have two years to transpose the new rules into their national legislation.

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