Online privacy: learning to forget

The virtual world of “www” fundamentally changed our life style; from the way we communicate, to the way we shop, even to the way governments communicate with their citizens. For example, “The Economist” edition of September 22-28, included an article on e-diplomacy becoming the main diplomatic channel between governments and their citizens. More ministers, including heads of states are using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other local social-media services to communicate with their citizens.

The information shared in the contemporary digital world allowed many users of the internet to enjoy comfort. From paying the bills online to shopping delivery, in some countries even voting no longer requires a citizen to leave the sphere of his home. At the same time the mass of personal information we provide – voluntary – has also been a reason for concern of the way such information is being used (or abused).

Take social networks for example, users of Facebook voluntary share their personal information, their photos, areas of interest, relationship status, even places we are planning to visit or had been to. This information which is put online remains available indefinably, even if we had a change of mind. As the digital world continues to develop, exercising control over our personal information is harder, and so protecting our personal privacy from pervasive clouding.

Last week the media published reports of which Facebook users in France found content of their private messages on their “Timeline” which wide available for the public. France, a country with quite strict laws over data protection, summoned Facebook managers on 25 September to explain privacy breaches.

With a range of 25 million users in France alone, Facebook denied a breakdown in its security systems, or violating any branches of privacy laws. However, as Facebook users also outside France started expressing similar concerns, this episode again shows what happens when we lose control over our personal data.

According to the Eurobarometer, 75% of the EU citizens think they should be able to delete personal information stored on a website whenever they want to. The European Commission have supported this notion and on January 25, 2012 Commissioner Viviane Reding announced a reform in EU’s 1995 data protection rules which includes a specific reference to the ability of users to control their personal data.

The “right to be forgotten” addresses an urgent problem in the digital as it provides consumers the ability to delete their personal information and choose not to be tracked. Reding’s proposal is currently discussed in the Legal Affairs Committee which I am a member of. While it’s still unclear when and how the final proposal will become a law, it’s a first and welcomed step to harmonizing EU laws on issue of data protection which will safeguard consumers’ rights.

While the U.S commentators sprang to criticize Reding’s proposal, it is my hope that other countries will follow this lead in order to strike a comprehensive balance between privacy, speech and consumers’ right to control their own data.

With greetings from the European Parliament,

Lidia Geringer de Oedenberg


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