In early June, the European Union agreed to a privacy proposal that The New York Times described as “business-friendly.” However, the proposal — which was far softer than measures floated in 2012 — did nothing to stop the privacy debate in Europe.
- a federal court in Germany said that Google was liable for autocomplete suggestions;
- France threatened to fine Google unless it changed its policies; and
- an advisor to the European court of Justice ruled that Google did not need to delete sensitive information from its search index.
All that, of course, is small potatoes compared to revelations about the National Security Agency’s data collection, which irked the European Commission something fierce and shifted the focus from corporate data collection — which had dominated the discussion — to government surveillance.
To get a grasp on Europe’s ever-evolving privacy debate, we are joined by Viktor Mayer-Schnberger, professor of Internet governance and regulation at the University of Oxford and coauthor of Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think. Mayer-Schnberger talks about how Edward Snowden has been a game-changer for European data policy, and how corporations like Google can reconcile U.S.-born privacy policies with European privacy concerns.
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Here are excerpts from the podcast:
TechNewsWorld: There has been a lot that’s happened since the early June ruling. So let me ask you first off if anything that’s happened since early June has changed the way the EU will view data policy. I know the early June ruling was noteworthy because it was deemed “softer.” Is there going to be any blowback — any reconsideration that maybe they shouldn’t soften things?
Viktor Mayer-Schnberger: I think if anything has changed over the last couple of weeks it is the desire of the European Union has strengthened to ensure that its citizens have strong privacy protections in place — not necessarily against primarily commercial entities, but, in the shadow of the Prism scandal, against foreign governments who are forcing foreign Internet companies to let them spy on millions of users, including European users.
TNW: Do you think that is a bigger concern right now — government snooping versus the collection and dissemination of data by companies like Google or Facebook? Is the government angle more of a concern in Europe?
Mayer-Schnberger: I think clearly after the revelations of Edward Snowden, there is a public sentiment against the U.S. government actions in Europe. People feel they have been deceived; people feel that they cannot trust the U.S. government — and in fairness, Europeans are in a way on the receiving end of this. They did not have even the limited democratic oversight over the NSA surveillance programs that were in place that American citizens had. Yet they were targeted just as well. So they feel kind of naked, in a data way, in the shadow of Prism.
And that of course creates the pressure point for EU politicians — as well as for national government politicians — to go on the record and say, “We need to ensure that whatever privacy regime we put in place, European individuals don’t feel that they are being continuously surveyed and spied on if they use Internet services by global companies.” And that is a very strong new sentiment, I would say … .
TNW: Germany is both kind of the trendsetter or the lead country on so many things in the EU. They’re a huge country with a huge economy, so you see them out in front a lot. They also are particularly sensitive to data collection and privacy; there’s decades of history that has caused their aversion to data collection. So with their dual role or dual personality of being both a leader and being acutely sensitive to data collection, do you see them … trying to spearhead the anti-data collection movement?
Mayer-Schnberger: Well, you have to look at this in the political context, as well. In Germany, elections are coming in the fall. There was the Pirate Party last year, which at one point had above 10 percent of the national vote behind it and was campaigning for a very libertarian platform. So the established parties, particularly the ones in government right now in Germany, feel they need to position themselves more favorably towards the Internet users in Germany, to go out and protect their privacy.
And the Prism revelations give them a good chance to do that, even thought some in the political establishment, particularly in charge of national security or law enforcement, might actually like to have a program like the Brits have or like the Americans have in Germany itself. But the political sentiment is just going the other way; you can’t say that at this point in the game. In fact, you need to go all the way to the other end and be really adamantly fighting … .
TNW: Yeah, I remember a few weeks ago President Obama was in Germany — maybe it was last week — and there was a lot of pressure on Chancellor Angela Merkel to bring up Prism and to express German displeasure with it. You mentioned the Pirate Party — there was actually somebody from the Pirate Party who said — kind of one-upped everybody else — and said, “We should give Edward Snowden asylum here.” So it was, “Who can love data protection the most?”
Mayer-Schnberger: And it seems to me that even the conservative party in charge, Angela Merkel’s party, really went to great pains to emphasize that Angela Merkel brought up in conversation with President Obama the displeasure of the German government with the Prism project. So everybody is trying to get brownie points here because of the upcoming election. But that means also that the dynamic, the privacy dynamic in Europe, is more strongly in favor of privacy rights.
But the enemy, if there is one at this point in time, is not commercial companies. In fact, if anything, Germans and so forth actually feel a little bit of pity for companies like Google and Yahoo, that have been pressured by the U.S. government not only to give them access to the data of their customers, but also to have to be silent and quiet about this. In that sense, at this point in time, I think on the EU level, we’ll see a little bit more momentum in favor of the new data protection regulation that is being debated.