Data sharing and data protection: the essential third way for Europe.

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

An iPhone displays the CovidSafe App, released by the Australian government in front of the Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, 05 May 2020. [EPA-EFE/LUKAS COCH]

History tells us that great pandemics, which start continental go worldwide quickly, upset entire civilisations. For us Europeans, the COVID-19 outbreak and its consequences have resulted in unprecedented changes to our everyday lives that we have not experienced since 1945.

Jean-Marie Cavada is a former Liberal & French MEP, who was a shadow rapporteur of the copyright directive. He is now CEO of the Institute for Digital Fundamental Rights.

Few can imagine the effort, the self-denial and what it is like to give up comfortable pleasures. In less than 3 months, a simple unknown virus has already undermined almost all doctrines that have ruled Europe for almost 40 years: As it was the case in 1918, 1929 and 1945. We must now assess the systemic and qualitative extent of the ruins created by the virus.

But if it is a war, we should now take a step back and take a more measured look at the crisis, greatness and self-sacrifice, including political agendas, in order to prepare the future. The most frightening is yet to come: the virus is a vector, a Trojan horse launched against our democratic values. Those who shamelessly ride it may enable the acceleration of profound social and political destabilisation.

Listen to them: they sound like trainee dictators. Full speed ahead, Party justice here, shutting down media there, regression of freedom: the fear that grips us and our need for security gives short-term ideas, tried and tested in history.

What is new in this current pandemic is the presence of a powerful, essential but also dangerous technology: the digital one. Driven by the values of our free societies, it could be a tremendous leap forward.  Monitored by its sole Californian or Chinese owners, it is a threat. The big platforms have been, for years, showing their arrogant disregard of laws, their contempt for sovereignties, if not more so for their market capitalisation. The prostration of algorithms must end: a tool, even a magical one, is only a tool at the service of its users.

We must therefore work to create stable conditions: yes to the right to share our data, yes to the necessity to protect it. We were told a new world would see the day through the climate change issue and the development of digital technology. Regarding the climate, everything remains to be done, and as for digital technology, it is that digital technology that will steer us, if we do not regulate it. Here we have it, the new world: its algorithmic capacities are an army: red in Beijing, green bucks at Wall Street.

For the time being, two American giants offer their help to different states, including European ones, to fight the spread of the disease, using Bluetooth technology, allowing recognition between two personal terminals that operate without data transmission or analysis, and based on voluntary registration of users. In this specific case, our European values would not be violated, but we must remain alert.

From a European point of view, this time of crisis calls for the creation of a strong doctrine for the future: the third way. In other words… “The right to share, the duty to protect”. This is the goal that our Institute for Digital Fundamental Rights (IDFRights) has set itself. To share in the hope of progress, to protect by demanding to always put the human aspect above tools. Whether it is about fundamental individual or collective freedom which has already been lost almost everywhere else!

Whether it is time to defend economic freedom, protect know-how, patents, intellectual or artistic property, fight against the mafia and counterfeiting which business has been spread out over the net, we must regulate!

I can already hear hypocrites boasting about neutrality, or crying out for censorship, while, by the way, not taking into account, illicit, dangerous and damaging fake news. I have already experienced them as a legislator for the European Parliament.

In order to solve this issue, we have brought together international lawyers, mainly academics, and players in the digital ecosystem, who will propose standards and norms for data circulation. Our institute aims to be both a “think-tank” and a “do-tank”.  The work of the lawyers will be translated into a code by ethical companies and, of course, the European GDPR of May 2018, guaranteeing users, including citizens, ownership and control of their data.

The first contributions (notably on the protection of health data) are coming in. In the interest of the public good, we must collectively draw up and propose rules, so that governments, parliaments and international organisations can take them on board. Europe, which conquered and then defended its independence and freedom at the cost of an appalling bloodshed, must remember what the cost is when we surrender.

Therefore, we invite all those who have the courage to think about a free future join us now. A counterweight movement must rise up. As you well know, freedom only wears down if we don’t use it.

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