Paul Bernal: Between a European Rock and an American Hard Place?

Europe and the US have had very different approaches to privacy – and in particular data privacy – for a very long time. Data protection, the centrepiece of European data privacy law, is currently undergoing a reform – and that reform is highlighting the differences in attitude, approach and understanding of privacy and its place in the delicate balance with free expression and business.

The issue that is causing the most contention is the much discussed ‘right to be forgotten’, one of the central planks of the suggested new Data Protection Regulation. It’s being strongly pushed by Commissioner Viviane Reding – but isn’t exactly getting a good press in the US. Apocalyptic pronouncements like “the right to be forgotten could close the internet” and that it is the “biggest threat to free speech on the internet” have appeared in such august journals as the Stanford Law Review.

What is perhaps just as interesting to UK people is the distress that the whole affair is causing to the UK government. They don’t seem to know what to do, or where they stand.

The right to be forgotten

The central thrust of the so called ‘right to be forgotten’ is the idea that people should be able to delete information about them held on the internet. One of the key reasons for its development was the difficulty that people have had in deleting their accounts from social networking sites like Facebook – and the sense that the data being held about people is in some senses ‘theirs’, and that as a consequence they should have the right to delete it. Exactly what the right would mean in practice is somewhat unclear. What kind of data would be covered by the right, and who the right could be enforced against – and how it would or could be enforced in practice – still seems very much up for discussion, and will probably remain so for some time.

From the perspective of the proponents of the right, it is a logical extension of the existing principles of data protection. People already have rights to access information held about them and to correct it when it is erroneous – and to ask for it to be removed if it is being held inappropriately. The ‘right to be forgotten’ takes this a step further – changing the balance so that unless there is a ‘good’ reason for data to be held, the data subject should have the right to delete it. Looked at from this perspective, it is a right that empowers people against the ‘big players’ of the data world – challenging the establishment, and helping to shift the balance of power back towards the individual.

The US perspective

From the US perspective there’s something very different going on: the right to be forgotten seems to be seen primarily as a threat to free speech. The very name ‘the right to be forgotten’ raises a spectre of censorship, or of the rewriting of history – and when Americans look across the Atlantic and back into history and see figures from Stalin and Hitler to the likes of Berlusconi, that impression might be reinforced. It’s for that reason that I’ve been arguing for a while that it would be better to call it the ‘right to delete’ rather than the right to be forgotten – but the latter seems to be what we’re stuck with.

Does the right to be forgotten really threaten free speech? European Commissioner Viviane Reding has done her best to reassure audiences both sides of the pond that it doesn’t. There are exemptions, she has said, for the media, and for free expression:

“It is clear that the right to be forgotten cannot amount to a right of the total erasure of history. Neither must the right to be forgotten take precedence over freedom of expression or freedom of the media.”

Those words haven’t reassured many American writers. Jeffrey Rosen in the Stanford Law Review is one of the most often quoted: he has gone into the detail of what has been presented about the right so far, and found enough ammunition to be able to suggest that it might be used precisely as a tool of censorship. Is he right? Well, the way it looks at the moment, at the very least we are in for some protracted arguments from both sides.

What about business?

All of this, however, may well be somewhat beside the point. Some of the more cynical of privacy advocates – myself included – suspect that the US position isn’t quite as principled as it might appear. Free speech is of course fundamental to the US constitution, and prioritised over almost everything else – but free enterprise is in some ways every bit as fundamental to the US, and when looked at in detail the right to be forgotten is far more challenging to free enterprise than it is to free speech. Businesses all over the world – but in the US in particular – have been building business models relying upon the gathering, holding and using of vast quantities of personal data. It is those business models that are under threat. Not only might they have to build in mechanisms to allow people to see and then delete the data held about them but the potential they have for exploiting this data might be much reduced. Those businesses are not likely to be unhappy to have the much-respected advocates of free expression do the hard work of opposing the right to be forgotten for them…

And the UK?

The UK seems to have neither Europe’s enthusiasm for privacy nor the US’s passion for free speech. What it does have is a desire to support business – and not to let anything else get in the way of the freedom for businesses to find ways to make money.  Back when the proposal for the right to be forgotten first started doing the rounds, UK politicians were doing their best to oppose it.

In May 2011 Justice Secretary Ken Clarke gave a speech to the British Chamber of Commerce in Belgium, counselling against too much data protection. He suggested that the right to be forgotten was effectively unworkable, and implied that it should be abandoned. His words weren’t heeded – Viviane Reding in particular has continued to push and push for the right to be forgotten – and the UK government looks as though it’s been squirming ever since.

It’s not the first time that the UK Government has been put in a position of confusion over digital issues, trying to ‘support business’. Back in November 2010, Ed Vaizey came out first against the idea of net neutrality, thinking he was supporting business, and then almost immediately in favour of it when he saw the reactions his first statements produced. In a similar vein, the confusion shown by the Information Commissioner’s Office over the notorious ‘cookies’ directive has been rumbling on for many months and shows no sign of real resolution.

This time, though, the UK Government has taken it a step further. It appears that the UK Government would much rather the ‘right to be forgotten’ disappeared. The Ministry of Justice is undertaking a consultation, ostensibly a ‘Call for Evidence on EU Data Protection Proposals’. The language used is nicely neutral, but the purpose appears clear.  In Hawktalk, the blog of the Amberhawk, the leading information law training providers, headlined their report on the consultation:

“MoJ asks for arguments to oppose the European Commission’s Data Protection Regulation”

Amberhawk suggested that by the nature of their call for evidence – the questions asked, the information provided, and the groups to which the call for evidence was sent – the MoJ was setting up a ‘numbers game’, wanting to say that the vast majority of respondents are opposed to the changes.

Will it work? Will the UK be able to block the regulation, or at least water it down in such a way as to neuter it? Given the persistence with which Commissioner Reding has pushed for the right so far, it seems unlikely. US opposition appears more likely to have an effect, not just because of the power of the US in the internet as a whole, but because their stance is more consistent and principled. Even that, however, cannot be taken for granted, as the US is now taking baby steps towards recognising the importance of privacy on the internet, with Obama putting forward his new  ‘Consumer Bill of Rights’ for privacy on the net.

The UK looks distinctly out of step – seemingly unable to influence Europe and unwilling to accept the views that are coming out of Brussels. For this author at least, the European view is distinctly more palatable, putting the rights of individuals at the heart of their proposals. It would be good if the UK Government began to do the same – and they might find their way out of the awkward position they now find themselves in.

Paul Bernal is a lecturer in the UEA Law School and a member of media@UEA. He blogs at The Symbiotic Web Blog (link tohttp://symbioticweb.blogspot.com/) and tweets as @paulbernalUK.

2 Comments

Filed under Comparative law, Human rights

2 responses to “Paul Bernal: Between a European Rock and an American Hard Place?

  1. Good post, Paul. Naturally, I’m not as cynical about U.S. businesses although I do feel that business needs to be much more transparent in empowering users about their data.

    Ironically, today I posted a more personal rationale for the benefits to future generations of learning from unedited histories: “The Duty NOT to be Forgotten: Tales from My Son’s Grandfather” http://jimadler.me/post/18381612999/the-duty-not-to-be-forgotten-tales-from-my-sons

  2. Thanks Jim – I like the post, and I like the idea of a right NOT to be forgotten. It should be remembered that right now, for those people who primarily use what might loosely be described as ‘provided’ social media, it’s often effectively in the hands of the provider whether something is remembered or not, particularly if a services is provided ‘free’. A service can be withdrawn, terms and conditions changed etc….

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