EU privacy reforms are too little too late

Europe’s inability to freshen up ancient data protection laws is ruining the relationship between consumers and corporates

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Activists petitioning for better protection of private data at the Ministry of Interior in Berlin. EU privacy reforms are long overdue, with archaic laws continuing to fray consumer and corporation relations

In January 2012 the European Commission pitched a proposal to bring Europe’s data protection laws up-to-date. Now, more than two years on, the powers that be are still at a loss over what exactly to do about the issue. Data protection laws essentially grant European and international companies free reign over personal data, which has succeeded only in stoking mistrust among consumers with regards to how organisations share their details with third parties.

[T]he trust lost between consumers and corporates will stagnate, and in some instances, destroy Europe’s digital economy

It’s clear that there remains a great deal to be done before companies regain the trust lost in years gone by, beginning with a legal framework that recognises individual rights and imposes stricter penalties on those conflicting with the law. If European authorities fail to implement wide-reaching reforms soon, the trust lost between consumers and corporates will stagnate, and in some instances, destroy Europe’s digital economy.
The vast majority of the rules pertaining to data protection were drawn up in 1995 – following five years of negotiation – at a time when as little as one percent of Europe’s population had access to the internet. Compare this with today, where internet dealings are commonplace and gold dust to companies across the globe, and you begin to understand why the issue has come up against such immovable forces.

Incognito mode
A consumer insights survey conducted by Ovum in 2013 showed that 68 percent of a sample population spanning 11 countries would prefer to remain essentially anonymous online, which in itself is indicative of hardening consumer attitudes towards privacy. However, if consumers are to convince European authorities to maintain a high level of privacy online, they must first contend with various internet giants whose profits depend on advertising revenues made possible by swathes of personal data.

New research conducted by mobile network operator Orange offered more details on how a severe lack of trust is undermining opportunities in the digital space, with 78 percent of the report’s respondents finding it hard to trust companies in possession of their personal data. What’s more, some 82 percent felt they had little to no influence over the way in which their personal data was used by organisations.

“Faced with the rapid development of uses of consumer data, more needs to be done to help consumers understand and manage how their personal data is used,” wrote Daniel Gurrola, Vice President of Orange’s Business Vision, in the report.

Data protection deadlock
It’s safe to say that most of Europe’s internet-savvy consumers feel uneasy about the continent’s laissez-faire approach to the misuse of personal data, along with the extent to which businesses are allowed to exploit private information for profitable gains.

This is not to say that authorities should necessarily obstruct access to personal data entirely, only that they should reinforce tighter controls and greater transparency with regards to how personal data is being kept and utilised by businesses.

After months of heated discussion and a vast amount of lobbying late last year, the LIBE Committee voted to allocate data protection law amendments to the EU Parliament, the EU Council of Ministers, and the European Commission, marking a small step forward for concerned consumers. While it’s possible that EU privacy reforms could arise before the end of the year, if history is anything to go by, the deadlock is likely to endure for quite some time.

Now is the time to cut the dilly-dallying and implement new data protection laws with full force. The longer it takes to push the EU privacy reforms through, the worse the relationship is likely to grow between consumers and organisations. So as not to waste opportunities in a largely lacklustre economic climate, immediate changes must be made to Europe’s age-old data protection laws before business prospects dry up.