data-protectionToday is “European Safer Internet Day 2012“, an initiative co-funded by the European Commission to promote safer and more responsible use of online technology. Yes, it’s possible to be cynical about “European Safer Internet Day” (is there such a thing as a “European” internet?) but, at a time when the Commission’s proposed new “data protection regulation” is being debated by the European Council and Parliament, is it perhaps worth taking a step back and asking if those advocating greater individual responsibility online and a “bottom-up” approach to internet safety might be onto something? Rather than trying to regulate the internet and protect individuals through legislation, should we be encouraging individuals to take greater responsibility over how they are using their data online? We opened up a discussion on this topic last week, and now we have an opportunity to take your comments to Sophia in t’ Veld, a Dutch liberal Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for her reaction.

First of all, should we even try to regulate the internet? Plamen left a comment arguing that “any attempts at regulating the internet, no matter how well intentioned, will end up creating tools for oppression. The internet is a marketplace of ideas, so normal market regulations don’t translate as well as those applied on the commidity/stock/labour markets.

What Plamen seems to be worried about is a concern that I share, in that governments are adopting regulations aimed at fighting child pornography and other illegal activities, but in doing so they create very strong powers to check legitimate activities – and those powers can be abused. The point is that these new powers for governments are not being matched by new powers from citizens to control their governments. That goes right to the heart of democracy.

The vast majority of our commenters seemed to agree with Plamen on this issue, arguing that internet regulation was a bad thing. They also wondered if it was even possible to “regulate the internet”. Nikolai left a comment arguing that “the EU should not even attempt to regulate the Internet. To take one specific example of ‘the right to be forgotten’, how will that work? The ‘right to be forgotten’ is a complete nonsense when things can go ‘viral’ in a moment. Once it is out there it is out there. At some point I must take personal responsibility about what I write, where I write it and to whom I give my details and why.

Yes, people have to be much more aware about the information we put out there. It’s not only on the internet, but even when you go to a store and pay for things with a credit card, for example. I had an issue with a chain in the Netherlands where, if you pay by credit card, you have to show them your ID card. That is reasonable, but then they would store the data from my ID card and were building up a database of user-data this way. This is completely illegal.

The problem is that people never ask questions. They just don’t ask. They are, to an extent, gullible and too trusting; they give their data to anyone – and people do need to be more aware, critical and cautious.

What about Nikolai’s question on the practicality of, for example, the “Right to be Forgotten”? Is it possible to ever be “forgotten” on the internet?

Is it possible to erase all traces of a person on the internet? No, it’s not possible and it may also clash with freedom of the media and freedom of speech. You own your own data, that is fair enough. If you give your data to a company, then you later have the right to recall that consent. Not least, what people don’t seem to realise is that personal data is hard currency. It’s not for free. Facebook are currently preparing for an IPO (Initial Public Offering) of their stock, and this demonstrates that personal data is worth billions. We give that data to companies for free on the internet.

We also had an interesting comment come in from Peter about the global nature of cyberspace. He argues that “governments have already sufficient legal instruments at their disposal to address abuse. On Cyberspace, they should have no sovereignty… Cyberspace does not have borders.” Is it really right to approach this problem from such a narrow, territorially-defined angle? Both the US and the EU are currently involved in drafting new legislation that would affect internet users globally – but there is no way for all the citizens potentially affected to influence the legislative process. Is it, as NATO’s Deputy Assistant Secretary General Jamie Shea argued when we spoke to him, rather a matter for an international body such as the United Nations?

I think, ultimately, we’ll need a global approach. At the same time, I would say we have a long history of data protection and privacy in Europe. You say citizens cannot influence the legislation in other countries, that’s true – but at the same time I note that the US authorities have been very active in the drafting of certain internet regulations in the EU. That they engage in debate when it’s on the table is fine. But that they are actually involved in drafting it – I think the EU should be a bit more mature and defend the interests of its own citizens more. I love and admire the US, and I think it is a great nation and our closest friend and ally, but we should be a bit more assertive sometimes. Are we going to be as complacent if China does the same?

What do YOU think? Do you agree that nobody should be attempting to regulate the internet? Or are you worried that this will make it too easy for service providers to abuse personal data? Are you concerned by how much data about you is available online? Or do you think that individuals should take more responsibility for what they put online? And what do you think about the various proposals being debated right now: EU data protection, ACTA, SOPA, PIPA, etc. Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.

IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Flickr – Tamberix
IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Flickr – morburg

12 comments Post a commentcomment

  1. avatar
    Christos Mouzeviris

    I have raised my opinion about ACTA/SOPA..As for the issue of how much information is out there online about me, well I really had a problem with it, I would not have become a blogger…I would not have a blog, a facebook account, I would not post in this website, I would not debate, do politics, raise my voice and opinion, criticize our leaders or any other public political or not personas (as I am aware that once you give criticism, you must learn to receive it as well)..I would not shop online, I would not subscribe for news and updates..I would have a limited use or access of the internet, end of…I think we have to make sure people are aware of these things..If you are uncomfortable with it, then it is not for you…

    We need to focus on passing this message to young people, so they can make their choice..Make an educated choice..Inform them about the advantages and disadvantages of the use of the internet and let them make their own minds about it…Then it is up to them…

  2. avatar
    Radu Micu

    I think somebody should “regulate” internet in the same way there is somebody out-there in real life. Absolutely.

  3. avatar
    Marko Vidučić

    NO TO INTERNET REGULATION!! This is just more government control, and less people’s control of their lives!

  4. avatar
    MandyandPj Leneghan

    Yes, no one should be attempting to regulate or control the internet but there are laws and if broken, normal processes should apply. As for personal data, any data provided is totally voluntary. Any attempt to control communications and information sharing should be strongly resisted, which includes any attempt to control news or political media, especially what is known as alternative media. The state and the corporates already control all activity outside of the internet so I would suggest that any move to control the internet, by the facsists, should be resisted by all non facsists :) …pj

  5. avatar
    Dimitris Tsoukalas

    We are talking years now about safer internet. Nevertheless, I have to underline that safer means not steal but share. None has the right to stop us sharing or knowing about what happens in the world. I am sure that all of us want Facebook, YouTube and other programs to exist, in order things to go well. Just think of waking up in the morning and want to surf via Facebook and talk with your friends who live in the other side of the world and an ACTA initiative PREVENTS you! How annoying! We are talking about safety? Then find a way to stop the hackers and not everybody else from connecting to the World Wide Web. Stop sites that contain viruses etc…of course it is your fault, because it was created safe and look now where it has ended up…discussing whether we must totally change the way of surfing. Are you kidding me? Just find a way to stop these hackers! Just block the sites you don’t want! You said that via YouTube human rights are violated… then make a committee that will look for the specific videos and remove them from the main server…not block whole video category from a country. I heard right? What? We will pay? Sorry ladies and Gentleman but THIS IS CALLED IMPERIALISM!!! How you ended up, just thinking that we MUST PAY in order to surf in the facebook or in the youtube or anywhere else. This is violation! Internet MUST be free. Instead of walking outdoors and hang out with your friends (which is totally free), we just sit in front of our Computer Screen and we are chating which must be free!).
    Sorry for my English, I hope that I was clear at least.

  6. avatar
    W. Alex Sanchez

    One can start with better computer-literacy classes for both youth and adults, like not to trust sites that ask for your personal /bank information in order to get a free car… and that there aren’t Nigerian princes that randomly found you and want to give you 10 million pounds…
    Are there reports about how many EU citizens fall for these scams and if any country in particular is targeted? I’d like to read about that.

  7. avatar
    Maria Nutricionismo Dietética

    secure internet is to talk with others without someone knowing what we are saying, is to use my credit card without bt stolen and stuff like that not an ankled internet liokr the people has to wear when they have house arrest lol

  8. avatar
    Nikolai Holmov

    “How can Europe ensure a safer Internet?” – Quite simply it can’t insure it and it should not even try.

    I am an adult and do not need nannying by legislators who probably know far less than I do about the Internet.

    We have laws on theft, fraud, child pornography, data protection and all other nefarious and abhorrent acts that can be carried out by the medium that is the Internet, but regulating the medium is NOT the answer.

  9. avatar

    What I think about regulating the Internet is that it should happen, but it should not affect the right to share everything. Internet is all about sharing.
    The most important fields that should be regulated are those concerning the call to violence, the harassment or what threats the right of a person and also the existence of pornographic content -related to everything- either related to child or adult.
    Above those things, everyone should understand that Internet content should be administrated in such a way that wont affect the user rights.
    To be remembered that the viruses, the malware and other means of destroying information or affecting personal computers, should be strongly regulated, regarding sanctions that involves individuals which should respond to their facts.

  10. avatar
    Rui Duarte

    The internet is not good or bad: it’s whatever we make of it. And whatever we make of it, we should make of it in uncompromised and absolute FREEDOM.

  11. avatar

    Freedom of speech is an international human right and anyone that infringes upon this right is effectively violating international human rights. The West is kidding itself that it is being true to it’s principles when it attempts to censor thoughts.

  12. avatar

    Well, i think the government should fill a roll in protecting us online when it comes to abuse of our personal data. I do not really know how the governmet could do that but i think the best way to do that is to educate people to use their common sense when online. If someone goes on the internet, they should be aware of that they run the risk of happening across content that they probably didn’t wanted to see. Furthermore i think people should be responisble for themselves with what the post on the internet. They need to be aware that when they post something, it will stay on the internet forever.

    Well, this was my opninion, i hope you can understand it because i’m from the Netherlands haha.

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