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Sharing data in a Digital Single Market

lyndsey burton digital single marketLyndsey Burton comments on Digital Single Market

The European Commission announced details of their plan for a Digital Single Market in Europe. With it, they’ve outlined a “free flow of data” proposal. Unfortunately it’ll be another wait before we know exactly how they’ll do this – a detailed proposal won’t be ready until 2016. A Digital Single Market has been on the cards for years – earlier this year, the European Commission pushed forward plans for “protecting an open internet” and changes to mobile roaming rules. These were small steps toward more cohesive regulation. But the single market is set to go much further, with far more shared regulation – as the name suggests, the idea is to scrap Europe’s digital borders, creating one big, Digital Single Market.

Reforming data protection rules

To create a Digital Single Market though, a host of outdated policies need modernising first – among them, and the first thing to change, is a long awaited reform of the European Union (EU) Data Protection Directive 1995. The reform – first proposed back in 2012 – could finally be in place by the end of the year. The Commission’s approach is to: improve clarity and coherence of the rules; strengthen individual’s rights; and reduce administrative formalities.

Facebook’s recent experiences with EU national regulators highlighted the kind of red tape the Commission hope to avoid – after meeting Ireland’s data protection rules, the Netherlands and Belgium proceeded to take issue with Facebook’s data protection, and lock Facebook in a regulatory spiral. If the Commission’s plans go ahead, companies would have just one set of data protection rules to abide by in the EU, compared to the 28 they now grapple with. This would make it both easier and cheaper for companies to do business in the EU, and hopefully encourage new digital business in.

Benefits for consumers?

For consumers though, data protection reform is all about building trust, something many agree is lacking at present. Under the reform, we’ll be able to decide how our data is used; we can more easily access our data; we’ll have the right to know if our data’s been hacked; and we can choose to have our data deleted for good.

Overall, the Commission want to “strengthen individuals’ rights, and at the same time reduce administrative formalities to ensure a free flow of personal data within the EU and beyond”. That’s all great – in the UK, our Data Protection Act 1998 could probably do with an update too. But aside from modernising the law, the real point of the EU reform is to get the right rules in place so every EU member state is working under the same regulation ahead of other big digital changes.

Big Data and the Digital Single Market

Of all the uses reliant on data protection reform, there’s possibly none so obvious as the use of personal data for Big Data analyses. In their Digital Single Market strategy, the Commission say Big Data is a “catalyst for economic growth, innovation and digitisation across all economic sectors”. It’s a huge money-spinner. But the seeming contrast between Big Data and an individual’s right to keep their information private won’t be lost on most. How can we maintain control over our personal information, yet allow companies easier and freer access to it?

By March 2018, all new built European cars must have automatic emergency call devices as standard. This is an excellent example of technology that relies on Internet of Things (IoT) – simply, the cars will call up emergency services if there’s a crash, sharing some information about the crash in the process. Technically this isn’t a part of the Digital Single Market but it’s given us a glimpse of the kind of control we could keep over our data as more and more IoT services are introduced throughout Europe. Thanks to rules introduced in conjunction, automatic calls made after a crash would only give the minimum amount of data for the service to be of any use. This would include the type of vehicle, fuel used, time of the accident, the exact location, and the number of passengers. The information couldn’t be passed to any third party without express consent, and later the data would be fully and permanently deleted.

It sounds a logical and fair balance between an innovative, helpful service, and the need for companies to access our data to deliver that service. Let’s hope then, the Commission follows this same logic and doesn’t get too “free” with our data. The Digital Single Market will give us easier access to goods and services – who wouldn’t want that? But it’ll rely heavily on getting data protection right if its benefits are to really outweigh any consumer worry.

Lyndsey Burton is founder of Choose, a consumer information site covering personal finance, home media and retail.

Trefor Davies

By Trefor Davies

Liver of life, father of four, CTO of, writer, poet,

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