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Sigmar Gabriel : Political consequences of the Google debate

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Political tasks to be tackled in Europe

The surprise ruling of the European Court of Justice on the Google issue has suddenly shown us how strong this power can be. For the first time ever, the Internet giant is obliged to delete sensitive data. But much more so – the court has re-established the sovereignty of law by ruling that Google can no longer simply bypass European standards by claiming that it stores and processes its data outside of the EU. This judgment has given the citizens of Europe the opportunity to defend themselves against seemingly intangible exploitation of their personal information. This should encourage us all and spur politicians into action.

It is now our task, as politicians, to translate this fruitful social debate into hands-on political action. We are faced with four basic tasks in our battle for freedom in the digital age.

Recovering the power of control

Firstly: We must ensure that Europe’s citizens secure their power to control how digital technology is used and to regain this power where it has already been lost. The precept of democracy that everyone must be free to decide his own fate, the fundamental standard of any liberal constitution, must also apply in the digital age, where everyone should be able to decide for himself how much personal information he wishes to put into circulation. Wherever this freedom needs to be restricted, for example to uphold registration obligations or aid criminal prosecution, this must only be possible by virtue of law and in keeping with the constitution.

We are resolute in our principle: individual ownership and personal power of disposal of one’s own data. This applies especially to the private sector and to commercial exploitation of our identity, and must also apply to the “digital personnel file”, i. e. to everything the employer wants to know about his employees. Prerequisite for and a first step towards recovering digital autonomy is transparency – a feature that has been largely lost nowadays –  on who collects, stores and resells what data of what citizens according to what pattern and for what purpose. Among other things, we also need publicly regulated certification, a “data protection traffic light” for apps, software and social media. The rule must be: no capturing or processing of data and no profiling unless the owner has given his specific authorisation.

It should also be possible to revoke the disclosure of personal data. The ECJ has made it quite clear: the reversability of decisions is an essential guarantee for freedom. “Erasure” must become a fundamental right of the digital age. To do this, statutory regulations obliging commercial data exploiters to not only “hide” private information, but to completely erase it from all storage media are needed.

The European General Data Protection Regulation is a keen sword in this battle: consent of the person concerned, portability of data, the right to erasure are all included in the draft regulation. The European Parliament has approved the regulation, the ball is now in the Council’s court. In order to allow Germany to retain its higher standards in certain areas, such as in data protection for employees and in the public sector, each member state must be given the right to retain its own, higher standards. However, this issue should not become an excuse for more delay and should not be allowed to provide a gateway for lobbyists wishing to keep bothersome requirements at arm’s length.

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