EU aims to boost web privacy safeguards

By Ben Shore
Europe Business Reporter, BBC News, Brussels

Media caption,
EU officials want to make it easier to delete online personal information

The rights we have to control our social networking profiles on the web are to be beefed up under proposals published by the EU Commission.

The Commission intends to update current data protection laws which date back to 1995, when the internet was still in its infancy.

One of the central questions, the EU believes, is a so-called "right to be forgotten". This is the right of a user of a social network to permanently delete their profile and all data associated with it.

In theory this right already exists, but its implementation on the web is described as "patchy".

On Facebook, for example, a user must send a formal request for deletion to the company before all their data will be disposed of. It is however possible to "suspend" an account which can then be "re-awakened" at a later date.

Easy deletion

The Commission argues this deletion process ought to be simple for any user of any web service.

Matthew Newman, the Justice spokesman, said: "We don't want people to wade through multiple screens and search in little nooks and crannies on the website to actually get what they want… If they want to wipe it off, it's just gone."

The Commission also wants to ensure that when people post data online, they are able to move it from one provider to another. This concept, known as "portability", could apply to sites which host people's digital photo albums.

Choice of cookies

Perhaps the most difficult issue, however, will relate to the information that websites gather about you from your use of the internet, in particular by the use of so-called cookies.

Cookies are small pieces of data that attach themselves to users as they navigate from site to site. Cookies can be used to make logging into e-mail services easier or set preferences for websites you often visit. However, they can also be used to target specific advertising.

The Commission believes that consumers should have the right to stop anyone from gathering information about them, including through cookies. Currently this requires making relatively complicated adjustments to a web browser like Internet Explorer, but EU officials say they are committed to "clarifying and strengthening the rules on consent".

The rule change may mean ensuring people explicitly allow their browsing habits to be gathered - which will go down well with some internet campaigners like Joe McNamee, advocacy co-ordinator for European Digital Rights.

"Facebook, Google, Yahoo and others make money out of personal data. This is not exactly a problem, once the consumer knows exactly what is being done with their data and once they have an easy way of saying start and stop," he says.

A public consultation on the strategy paper will be open until 15 January, after which the Commission hopes to have draft legislation ready for review by the European Parliament and the 27 member states by mid-2011.

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