Free lunch online?

The ever-growing use of the Internet makes online services, such as e-mail, search engines, social networking and navigation, part of our daily lives. The fact these applications are free of charge makes them ever more popular.

But are these tools really free?

Most users of Facebook, Gmail, Amazon and other applications are seeing more and more tailor-made advertisements while consuming the online service. These ads somehow match the user’s current location, age group, interest or past purchase.

The idea behind it is quite simple. Since the user will not be paying for the product, his/her personal information is becoming the product sold by the service provider to corporate clients and government agencies, who are willing to pay  for this information.

While most people willingly volunteer all manner of facts about themselves when registering or subscribing to popular online services, most people are unaware to how their information is used by the online service. Moreover, they are mostly unaware to the fact information submitted cannot currently be retracted or deleted.

For many of us, this is an expensive price to pay for the so-called free application.

In the age of Prism the uncertainty about our personal data leads to trust issues between the users, service providers and government agencies.

According to the European Commission just over a quarter of social network users (26%) and even fewer online shoppers (18%) feel in complete control of their personal data. Furthermore 92% of Europeans are concerned about mobile apps collecting their data without their consent, and 89% of people say they want to know when the data on their smartphone is being shared with a third party.

Re-establishing trust is one important element of the current revision to the EU’s data protection Directive, which dates back to 1995. There are two ways to ensure our objective is achieved.

First, is by allowing people the full control on their data, modifying, and ever important, deleting information. Under the Commission proposal to the data protection package, users will be able to ask that their data be deleted if they no longer want them to be processed and there are no legitimate reasons for keeping this data. This is better known as the “right to be forgotten”.
Although the Commission’s proposal restricts this “right” in some cases, for instance when the data are needed for historical, statistical and scientific research purposes, the European Parliament asked that these exceptions are made clear in the final agreement.

The second way to achieving our goal is by introducing a European cloud computing that will ease the EU’s dependence on non-European cloud providers. In my previous blog post I elaborate on the European cloud, where our work is on-going (see

A European cloud will deliver to citizens higher standards of data protection; Higher standards of data protection will give Europe’s cloud providers a competitive advantage.

Together, the data protection package will provide citizens with the assurance their personal data is protected regardless to where it is stored or sent to.

Greetings from the European Parliament,


Lidia Geringer de Oedenberg


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