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Reading Reding: Pouring water on DP draft bill

Just how workable is the Euro commissioner's proposal?

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It's been a busy few days for the future of data protection at a European level. However, the celebrations and commiserations are well and truly over for policy wonks, internet businesses and watchdogs who have all been eagerly poring over the Justice Commissioner's freshly-tabled draft Data Protection (DP) bill. Now the real work begins.

Late last week, I was one among hundreds of attendees at the Computers, Privacy & Data Protection conference – an event that is fast becoming an essential annual meeting point for anyone wanting to dissect the latest online privacy issues.

The Brussels' shindig for DP geeks has actually been going for a good few years now, but this one – cast at the same time as Reding putting forward her draft data protection bill – was arguably the most important yet. If nothing else, it certainly served as an immediate post-mortem.

That's because the commissioner's proposals are still being digested by the various national data protection authorities throughout Europe. Some are spitting blood over the far-reaching changes detailed within the planned directive, while others complain that it simply hasn't gone far enough.

Well, to be Blunt...

Inevitably, given its lax history on data protection, the UK government is one of the most vocal of the 27 member states' against some of the proposed rules put forward by the EC's vice-president.

One of the areas of major concern, according to Blighty's Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice, Crispin Blunt, is Reding's notion of the "right to be forgotten" online.

He was talking on behalf of the Council of Europe, whose job it now is to scrutinise the proposed overhaul to the treaty for the overly wordy "Protection of Individuals with regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data", otherwise known as Convention 108. The original text for that concord was agreed in 1981 and served as something of a model for the EU's 1995 directive on data protection.

Like Reding's proposed rewrite of Europe's DP law, Convention 108 also needs to be modernised to fall into step with the technology used today to handle data processing, especially online.

"In the current environment of cloud computing, social networking and other forms of new technology individuals in both Europe and beyond want to be confident that their privacy, safety and freedoms are strongly protected," Blunt said.

He opined that DP laws developed in the UK 30 years ago remained relevant today, but admitted that some points needed to be revisited.

"Simply imposing detailed prescription is unlikely to make our citizens feel safer or freer. In fact, such a regulatory straight jacket runs the risk of doing the opposite and tying the hands of individuals who seek to protect us from harm," Blunt said.

"We should look to better understand each other and our respective laws rather than unpicking enduring principles and introducing an entirely new, and quite possibly impractical regulatory framework."

The minister added that Reding's "right to be forgotten" pledge was an area where he “would like to sound a note of caution". He said that it seemed to him “at first glance to be wholly commendable” but added that policymakers needed to take a long hard look at how they planned to make such a proposal "workable".

He argued that such a move in the current shaky European economy could potentially be badly timed. Businesses might be "hampered" by such legislation, Blunt countered.

Blunt also questioned how the transfer of so much data online could be realistically dealt with by businesses such as Google that will be told – if the draft bill passes in its current form – to notify at DPA within 24 hours of a data breach taking place.

"My concern is we may be running the risk of setting the standard so high that we are unlikely ever to achieve a workable model," he said.

The UK government is well known for being something of an agitator on the data protection scene, in part because it has such disdain for the one-size-fits-all proposed law.

As Reding told me last summer: "The British point of view to open the internal market has not changed. If you are an island and you want to take advantage of the European markets then you do not want to have the rule barriers in place."

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