Europe needs data protection, not data protectionism

Neelie Kroes
Non-Executive Member of the Board, Open Data Institute
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The digital revolution is now driven by data. The Economist and others have called “big data” the next industrial revolution, and for good reason.

The next generation of innovation in manufacturing, healthcare, academic research or public services will be possible because we find new ways to harness and learn from data. Just as machines started to augment or replace our muscle power 200 years ago, machine analysis can now also supplement our thinking.

With that opportunity to do more, make more and avoid more mistakes, why is so much of the world lurching into a fear-driven debate about personal data and online surveillance?

The answer is obvious. Big data is a challenge to our comfort zone. Today we produce more data every two days than all humans did up until 2000. The scale of online surveillance is greater than many people ever realized. And it is a surprise to learn that even allies spy on each other. In this respect, I understand people’s fears.

But let’s also be mature about data.

We should not sit like rabbits in the headlights in the face of scandals, or allow trust in the Internet to collapse. You don’t fight unacceptable surveillance by shouting or through a European Surveillance Agency (I explain why in this interview with France 24 – fast forward to 13 minutes). You fight it by funding research into secure systems (as the EU is doing with its Horizon 2020 programme), supporting new standards and transparent contracts for data services, teaching people that in the online world you either pay with data or cash for a service, and putting in place legal requirements for companies and governments to take cyber risks seriously.

That said, proper and clever use of data requires a lot more than data protection laws. If your home or office has been burgled, you don’t just call a lawyer: you get a better lock.

Many great data innovations don’t rely on personal data at all. Translation technology like SysTran and Google Translate are good examples, and they remind us that data shouldn’t stop at borders. I support data protection not data protectionism.

Let’s acknowledge that people won’t use what they don’t trust. And from that starting point of high security, let’s see data as an opportunity. It is an opportunity to make our lives easier and grow our economies.

Europe and the world need:

  • A strong and trusted cloud, with clear rules – the cloud isn’t going away, so we better make it safe
  • A culture of open data and open access to scientific results – we can produce so much more value from data when we give the original data away
  • A shared commitment to cybersecurity – we need better capabilities, a culture that shares responsibility for this problem, and more cooperation between countries and companies
  • I want Europe to be connected, competitive, open and secure. That won’t happen if we run away from data

Author: Neelie Kroes is Vice-President and Commissioner for the Digital Agenda at the European Commission.

Image: Visitors attend a presentation about cloud computing at a fair in Hanover REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch.
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