The EU GDPR as a clarion call for a new global digital gold standard

Giovanni Buttarelli
Raising the bar for data protection

The General Data Protection Regulation (or GDPR) is going to raise the bar for data protection laws around the world. Like other data protection authorities, we were closely involved in the policy discussions, though not in the negotiations. (See our opinions in Data protection reform package as Political agreement was reached in December 2015, and the text is expected to become law before the summer.)

We believe we have had some influence over the process, but we do not pretend that the final outcome is perfect, and in some ways it is quite far from the ideal.  Nevertheless we intend to be among the loudest champions of this reform, which is quite simply, and by a long way, the most ambitious endeavour so far to secure the rights of the individual in the digital realm for a generation.

Robust and flexible

The GDPR contains considerable flexibility, and certainly more than it appears at first sight. It aims to entrench privacy on the ground, and allows different sectors to contribute to new norms and best practices appropriate to specific circumstances. Its cornerstone is the notion of trust: trust in data controllers to treat personal information responsibly, and trust that the rules will be effectively enforced. It will be incumbent on Europe’s independent data protection authorities, working through a reinforced cooperation facility called the European Data Protection Board, to foster that trust and accountability, by being transparent and accessible to stakeholders and efficient in providing relevant and timely guidance on compliance.

A game-changer 

The GDPR will have two major strategic consequences.

The first consequence is that the GDPR sets up a genuine platform for global partnerships. This reflects the global nature of data flows, enabled by technologies and driven by creative, disruptive business models. Over half the countries in the world now have a data protection and/or privacy law, and most are strongly influenced by the European approach, a trend towards the ‘global ubiquity’ of data privacy. The regulation promises a wider scope for cooperation between authorities and data controllers both within the EU and internationally. It should galvanise efforts for a more consistent standard contractual clauses, speed up the validation process for binding corporate rules, and help them dovetail with similar arrangements elsewhere in the world. I hope that the new provisions for codes of conduct, seals, certification and accreditation processes will incentivise controllers inside and outside the EU to take the initiative in devising standards which are both business friendly and in the interests of individuals.

The second consequence is that data protection is no longer an optional extra. The Court of Justice of the European Union applies these rules strictly, interpreting them in the light of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, and favouring the rights and interests of the individual above corporate or business aims, however reasonable and legitimate. The EU cannot retreat from these core values. Data protection authorities will have to be vigilant in monitoring implementation of the GDPR, and applying the newly- amplified range of possible sanctions in case of violation.

Accountability: a new cornerstone

Accountability therefore becomes central.

This term, which has currency in English but in few other languages, has in fact very ancient roots. The word is derived ultimately from the Latin putare meaning ‘to reckon’. The concept has been incorporated into data protection because the need for such ‘reckoning’ stretches across all sectors that handle personal information, including government, private, academia, commercial, and not-for-profit.

There has been an exponential rise in the volumes of personal data being collected, stored, and transferred, which information is increasingly not provided by the individual him- or herself, but rather observed, derived or computed by someone else. For human rights to have any meaning, it is therefore essential for someone to be responsible for how that data is used. Individuals are subject to granular inferences drawn from statistics through advanced analytics based on algorithms of which they are at best only partially aware. They are put at risk by data processing which is unfair or discriminatory, and which entrenches stereotypes and social exclusion. Accountability should promote sustainable data processing, by ensuring that the burden of assessing the legality and fairness of complex processing falls primarily on controllers and regulators, not on the individual.

The EDPS this year is launching a project to explain and start to implement accountability in the way we process personal information across all EU institutions, beginning with our own. We will publish the results of this exercise as a contribution to the understanding of this principle among fellow data protection authorities as well as controllers.

Being accountable for data processing is not a substitute for compliance with the applicable legal obligations. It should be understood as an ethical responsibility for activities which take place for a given purpose, whether profit making, law enforcement, social care or research – or even a combination of them.

Privacy bridges that need to stand the test of time

Last week the appalling terrorist attacks on Brussels, one of them just a few hundred metres from my office, was the latest brutal reminder that in Europe, like many other parts of the world, individuals’ rights and freedoms are fragile and vulnerable.

Respect for privacy and personal information are at the core of our notion of human dignity. 

So now is the time to build bridges between the regions of the world on sustainable personal data processing. Bridges are constructed from two sides with a common goal, so we need a robust model for how bilateral data sharing agreements can work. The Safe Harbour agreement did not stand the test of time so negotiators from the EU and the US have tried to repair the damage with the proposed Privacy Shield. Europe’s data protection authorities are studying this complex document to test its likely longevity. 

I will be joining several of these authorities next week to take part in the 2016 Global Privacy Summit of the International Association of Privacy Professionals in Washington DC.

My message will be that around the world we need similar exercises to that being undertaken by the EU and the US. My hope is that, during the period of a generation for which the GDPR is likely to apply, we will have achieved a common standard, a sort of digital gold standard, which will accompany globalisation and all the benefits and challenges it poses for individuals and society.

A version of this article will appear in the next edition of the International Data Privacy Law journal and can be found on their website.