Reding to move swiftly on Internet privacy

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The EU’s Data Protection Day on Thursday (28 January) will be the first public opportunity for the new commissioner in charge of fundamental rights, Viviane Reding, to spell out her priorities on Internet privacy, particularly regarding an upcoming review of the Data Protection Directive, officials close to the commissioner said.

“You can be sure that fundamental rights, including data protection, will be top of my list,” Reding made clear during her confirmation hearing with the European Parliament two weeks ago (EURACTIV 13/01/10).

And indeed, officials close to the commissioner told EURACTIV that among Reding’s first priorities in her new portfolio would be a review of the Data Protection Directive, which dates back to 1995. “The world has changed since 1995,” the official said.

Data protection encompasses a number of topical issues, which are not only important in their own right but also relevant for the EU’s relations with key international partners like the United States. The treatment of banking data or airline passengers’ personal information is the subject of tough negotiations between Brussels and Washington.

On the occasion of Thurday’s Data Protection Day, however, Reding is expected to focus on online privacy, which has traditionally been the primary focus of the event, sponsored by software giant Microsoft.

The event, to be hosted in the European Parliament’s Brussels premises by liberal MEPs Alexander Alvaro and Sophia in ‘t Veld, features debates on social media and privacy.

Officials close to the commissioner insist that she will not miss the opportunity to spell out her future plans for online data protection.

One key issue is the treatment of data by online services. Search engines collect information, such as IP addresses and queries posted by users, to build up electronic profiles of Internet surfers, and then make money by selling this strategic information to advertisers.

The thriving targeted ads industry could find itself in serious danger if the EU institutions decide to treat the information collected as private data. This would make it compulsory for advertisers to get users’ prior consent to use that information.

How to deal with social networks, such as Facebook, is another matter of concern for regulators. Young people continue to post their personal information on such platforms without being properly aware of the privacy risks involved.

The future of online privacy also concerns another important development: the migration towards cloud computing, which involves storing all electronic documents on remote hardware rather than on personal desktops.

This process has enormous economic and environmental advantages, but poses a serious threat to privacy, as underlined by many experts (EURACTIV 17/06/09). 

As the digital era kicks in, the EU institutions have shown an increased interest in protecting citizens and consumers' privacy in the online world.

Many initiatives launched by various commissioners have underlined the advantages and the dangers of a number of new technologies and trends, including targeted advertising, social networks and radio identification tags (RFID).

As information society commissioner, Viviane Reding endorsed a zero-tolerance approach to abuses of personal data usage. "Citizens' privacy must become the priority in the digital age," she said in a recent statement

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