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Opinion We need a modern framework for data protection – and we need it now

Data protection reform will need to rebuild the trust that has been shattered by numerous spying scandals and data breaches.

STRENGTHENING ECONOMIC GROWTH is Europe’s top political priority right now. Deservedly so: the plight of millions – mostly young and unemployed citizens – demands it, not to mention the need to stay competitive in the global arena. The reform of EU data protection rules proposed by the European Commission has a vital role to play in this: it will give a huge boost to the digital economy by cutting red tape for businesses while strengthening the rights of citizens.

We have made good progress in the negotiations, but we have to keep moving. During their meeting this week, EU Justice Ministers will have the opportunity to further advance this project that is so crucial for Europe’s future. We need a strong, modern framework for the protection of personal data, and we need it soon, to help Europe’s economy grow and get its citizens into jobs.

The reform will set businesses free: they will only have to deal with one national data protection authority and one set of rules across the entire EU, rather than 28. This will cut costs and complexity for companies and enable small firms, and start-ups especially, to conquer new markets.

Rebuilding trust 

At the same time, the reform gives citizens more control over their data, thus helping to rebuild the trust that has been shattered by numerous spying scandals and data breaches. Consumers’ confidence is the biggest prize in the digital economy. Only by rebuilding this confidence will businesses be able to tap the full potential of this sector.

The reform provides the right tools for this task. Clear rules, for instance on the transfer of data, will allay fears of surveillance and data insecurity as will the principle that every company active in Europe will have to apply our laws, even if its servers are based outside the EU. And the new possibility for national data protection authorities to impose meaningful sanctions on firms breaking the rules will show citizens that their rights are effectively upheld.

Freedom of expression 

One of these rights has been making headlines for months: the right to be forgotten. In May, the European Court of Justice ruled that search engines such as Google have to remove search results at the request of citizens if certain conditions are met. This judgment has caused a stir as internet firms, media companies, regulators, legal experts and citizens grapple with the implications.

It is normal that such a significant and far-reaching ruling triggers a lively debate. However, we must not forget that this judgment has not elevated the right to be forgotten to a super right, allowing for censorship on the internet. On the contrary, the ruling calls for a careful balance of the right to be forgotten and the right to freedom of the media and freedom of expression, thereby reinforcing the balanced approach taken by the Commission in its proposed reform. The judgment also highlights why we need to adopt this reform as soon as possible. The Court had to step in because Europe’s data protection rules are not fit for the internet age. They date back to 1995 – an aeon ago in terms of the digital revolution.

The reform gives the EU the modern framework needed to provide citizens with confidence in the security of their data and companies with the clarity and legal certainty they depend on doing business in Europe.

Digital single market 

It is now for Member States to work with the Commission and the European Parliament to ensure that these modern data protection rules are put in place soon. The Parliament has already given its strong backing, and the Heads of State and Government have committed to adopting a strong EU General Data Protection framework by 2015. I am confident Member States will stick to this ambition, and count on the Irish Government to play an active role in concluding these negotiations.

The incoming European Commission of Jean-Claude Juncker has made the completion of the digital single market one of its priorities. The data protection reform should be an important step forward, laying the groundwork for further ambitious projects to follow in the next five years. Let’s get it done!

Martine Reicherts, EU Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship. 

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