Erase and rewind: the EU and privacy

data protection

It's easy to picture it as a scene out of Yes Minister, but with Continental accents. "Director, we need to do something about these interwebs, they are getting out of control." "Yes, Commissioner".

The last set of EU rules date back to 1995, when web browsing was a distinctly niche activity, and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg was still at primary school.

Of course, EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding is no newcomer when it comes to technology; her previous post was as Commissioner for the Information Society. And the extensive proposals to reform the EU's data protection regime seem largely sensible.

Typical Brussels wording, such as "a general EU framework for data protection", mask the true content of what could turn out to be very extensive set of changes. The proposed regulations are, in many ways, more of an update than a reform. The last set of EU rules date back to 1995, when web browsing was a distinctly niche activity, and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg was still at primary school.

Rules, such as the "right to be forgotten", will affect sites such as Facebook and Google, but also businesses operating forums and blogs, and possibly even product knowledge bases where members of the public can contribute material.

At the other end of the spectrum, rules such as the requirement for firms with more than 250 employees to appoint a data protection officer, and a legal obligation for companies that suffer a data breach to notify their regulator the ICO in the case of the UK within 24 hours might smack of bureaucracy.

But most of what the EU has proposed is simply good practice.

Companies should not, for example, hold on to data where a customer or citizen does not want them to; having someone tasked with data protection in a firm is one way to ensure management takes the issue seriously.

An obligation to notify the "supervising authority" of a data breach is a far milder requirement than, for example, California's California Security Breach Information Act (or SB-1386for short). That obliges companies to inform their customers, not merely their regulator. The maximum euro1m fine for data breaches, again, will force those organisations that have dragged their heels on data protection and privacy to raise their game.

The question for businesses now, though, is how the new rules will be implemented.

Implementation and enforcement of EU regulations is largely a matter for national governments. The UK's track record here is more mixed. In some cases, the UK has dragged its heels over implementing EU rules; in others authorities have stood accused of "gold plating" legislation, going beyond the basic requirements set out by the EU and placing more onerous compliance requirements on UK businesses than those demanded by other EU states.

So there is an opportunity for businesses, and the technology sector, to examine the rules and to make a well thought out case for sensible implementation in the UK. And there is also plenty that companies can do to prepare themselves too; Google's new privacy policy is one example.

But ignoring it and hoping it will go away, Jim Hacker style, is not an option.

Stephen Pritchard is a contributing editor at IT Pro