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Op-ed : "On personal data, Europe can still succeed" by Laure Kaltenbach and Olivier Le Guay

Economic, legal, technical or cultural challenge: who will win the data battle?  In a more and more data driven society, Europe can restore confidence among consumers, promote data sharing and make a competitive advantage of it at the same time….if it puts the data challenge on the ethical ground. 

Op-ed previously published in French in La Croix

Europe is declining on the ground of industrial applications. By investing massively in the connected devices market (internet of things) and in self data - those “nets data catch-all” (from culture to health, via glasses, watches or even fridges), data-driven businesses do not only want to know and advocate our cultural behaviors – their economic models are sated with it. They need to move up a gear by capturing our most intimate behaviors, in the name of improving our “performances” (nutritional, sportive, or intellectual ones), with the aim of anticipating our needs and satisfy them.

Consumers, yet fascinated by the promises made, are more and more suspicious about this massive capture of (their) data without status towards clouds without boundaries. The significant increase in the digital uses on any device, the dematerialization and deterritorialization of the networks, are multiplying the risks of privacy breaches. The challenge is industrial and economic, ethical and humanist at the same time, just as Mathias Döpfner, President of the press group Springer recalled it in March. Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, and the 500 participants to the Forum d’Avignon @Paris, gathered at the French Economic, social and environmental council (CESE) on September 19th[1], made the same statement, exhorting Europe to sign a “data charter”.  

Only an ethical code on data transparency can constitute a trustworthy compensation. Facing such challenges for our privacy, it is not about consolidating legal bases that became obsolete anymore. “The ambivalence of the digital technology requires that we think fundamental rights protection over”, just as the annual study of the French State Council dedicated to “Digital technology and the fundamental rights” stated, insisting on the place of individuals in the right to protect their data and, finally, to found an ethics of data. “Businesses that become aware of it will be able to reinforce their credibility. It is not a cost but an investment” Bruno Perrin, EY partners, stated, recalling at the same time that the right for data protection is becoming operational for the States, just as the right to be forgotten was imposed by the European Court of Justice. 

Citizen must be active and vigilant. Legal measures are to be defined rapidly to ensure the general interest and the individual rights of ‘personal data’. Solutions are multiple. Positive ethics on personal data also proceeds from the mobilization of citizens, as Jeremy Rifkin stated it in his last book “The Zero Marginal Cost Society”: “if they feel that data managing is threatening their privacy, they will act with online petition to establish a “digital charter of rights””.

We need a new dynamic of ethics to be imposed at a practical and symbolic level. How? By exempting from technology, naturally upgradeable, and by giving to each country and continent the ability to adopt rules consistent with its culture: data status, servers localization, data encryption, sovereign OS... and by supporting the Preliminary declaration of the digital human rights, resulting from the works of the think tank of the Forum d’Avignon, accessible on the website in five languages, and aiming at moving away from a purely defensive logic, hardly intelligible by digital native generations. Europe has much to gain from taking the responsibility of this ambition.

[1] First cultural Forum 100% data, on September 19th, around the following main challenges: ethics, equity, transparency for the States and the local authorities, data sharing, opening of the networks and infrastructures to make our cities even more smart.