«

»

Why no European institution can afford to ignore privacy

By Simon Davies

A turning point appears to have been reached for privacy advocacy in Europe. There isn’t a single defining moment for this shift, but it is palpable, and it is certainly worth outlining in some detail. This shift will increasingly influence privacy in this region.

A turning point appears to have been reached for privacy advocacy in Europe

First, some history. Of course this account is one man’s perspective.  I’m sure every long-standing advocate will have a variant on this narrative, but this is as I see it, even though it tells a tiny part of the story and mentions only a tiny fraction of players.

More than 22 years ago Privacy International (PI) started a movement and a networking process that began to build collaboration and communication between advocates working in different sectors and nations. That organisation’s reach had – and continues to have – a significant influence on the development of campaigns, networks and partnerships.

For years PI existed in a sort of wilderness as a global advocate. Then came the international collaboration, partially enabled by the Internet. By the end of the 1990s such organisations as the US based  Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) were thinking and acting globally. Media started to report on issues other than those in its back yard. People began to understand that what happens in a single Congress or Parliament can have a global effect.

In Europe however, little changed. At a national level the UK was well positioned for civil liberties, France for human rights, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries for consumer rights and Germany and Austria for Netizen rights, but coordination and communication between these groups was random. Some organisations had a substantial impact on reform and awareness-building – Statewatch, CCC and BEUC to name a few – but even by 2000 the idea of a full collaboration and penetration into Europe’s political infrastructure was still a distant aspiration.

If there was a red-letter moment that influenced this situation it was – in my view – the European Parliament’s 2000-2001 hearings on the US National Security Agency’s spying activities in Europe – the Echelon Inquiry  (pdf)

Populations became more aware, and politicians started to reflect this new generation of concern

That investigation began a bonding process that created a working collaboration between activists in the UK, Germany, Netherlands, Austria, Germany and other countries. Bonds were formed with MEP’s and with the European Parliament. In one sense, a “common enemy” had ignited a sense of urgency at a regional level.

In 2001 discussions began over the idea of a Europe-wide advocacy group that in the following year was founded as the European Digital Rights Initiative (EDRi). While American national security was only one of its concerns, this project was a child of its time and reflected a vast range of issues from copyright to privacy.

The European Commission, the European and national parliaments, the Council of Ministers might sometimes sneer at the concept, but they have been forced to recognise it and to take it politically into account.

EDRi struggled along for some years, slowly gathering members, many of which were independent activists working against huge odds. But things started to change in Europe – significantly because of EDRi. In many countries privacy and other civil rights were picked up not just by media but by the mainstream political process. Populations became more aware, and politicians started to reflect this new generation of concern.

Meanwhile, the concept of surveillance started to attract huge interest. In 2008 Freedom not Fear began with protests in fifteen countries, including a massive demonstration and campaign in Germany that foreshadowed the successful ACTA protests three years later.

At much the same time the influence of privacy and civil rights activists became very clear when the new UK government came to power in part on a platform of rights and privacy reform, including commitments to repeal schemes such as the national identity card.

All of which brings us to 2012, a time when no politician can ignore privacy. The European Commission, the European and national parliaments, the Council of Ministers might sometimes sneer at the concept, but they have been forced to recognise it and to take it politically into account.

Why do I say that a corner has been turned? Last week, while I was in Brussels to address the World Economic Forum and the Inter-parliamentary meeting of the European and National parliaments, the influence of EDRi, PI and other advocacy groups followed me at every point. They had drawn blood, stopped bad legislative initiatives and paralysed institutional commitments. They understand due process and they have learned to sell their ideas on the test of evidence.

Just as with the US environment, it would be foolish for institutions and corporations in Europe to dismiss these developments. Not only are they now part of the fabric of legislation, but they will continue to influence public opinion.