This article was first published in Data Protection Law & Policy in July 2013
At present, there is a visible mismatch between the globalisation of data and the multinational approach to privacy regulation. Data is global by nature as, regulatory limits aside, it runs unconstrained through wired and wireless networks across countries and continents. Put in a more poetic way, a digital torrent of information flows freely in all possible directions every second of the day without regard for borders, geographical distance or indeed legal regimes and cultures. Data legislation on the other hand is typically attached to a particular jurisdiction – normally a country, sometimes a specific territory within a country and occasionally a selected group of countries. As a result, today, there is no such thing as a single global data protection law that follows the data as it makes its way around the world.
However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Despite the current trend of new laws in different shapes and flavours emerging from all corners of the planet, there is still a tendency amongst legislators to rely on a principles-based approach, even if that translates into extremely prescriptive obligations in some cases – such as Spain's applicable data security measures depending on the category of data or Germany's rules to include certain language in contracts for data processing services. Whether it is lack of imagination or testimony to the sharp brains behind the original attempts to regulate privacy, it is possible to spot a common pedigree in most laws, which is even more visible in the case of any international attempts to frame privacy rules.
When analysed in practice and through the filter of distant geographical locations and moments in time, it is definitely possible to appreciate the similarities in the way privacy principles have been implemented by fairly diverse regulatory frameworks. Take 'openness' in the context of transparency, for example. The words may be slightly different and in the EU directive, it may not be expressly named as a principle, but it is consistently everywhere – from the 1980 OECD Guidelines to Safe Harbor and the APEC Privacy Framework. The same applies to the idea of data being collected for specified purposes, being accurate, complete and up to date, and people having access to their own data. Seeing the similarities or the differences between all of these international instruments is a matter of mindset. If one looks at the words, they are not exactly the same. If one looks at the intention, it does not take much effort to see how they all relate.
Being a lawyer, I am well aware of the importance of each and every word and its correct interpretation, so this is not an attempt to brush away the nuances of each regime. But in the context of something like data and the protection of all individuals throughout the world to whom the data relates, achieving some global consistency is vital. The most obvious approach to resolving the data globalisation conundrum would be to identify and put in place a set of global standards that apply on a worldwide basis. That is exactly what a number of privacy regulators backed by a few influential thinkers tried to do with the Madrid Resolution on International Standards on the Protection of Personal Data and Privacy of 2009. Unfortunately, the Madrid Resolution never became a truly influential framework. Perhaps it was a little too European. Perhaps the regulators ran out of steam to press on with the document. Perhaps the right policy makers and stakeholders were not involved. Whatever it was, the reality is that today there is no recognised set of global standards that can be referred to as the one to follow.
So until businesses, politicians and regulators manage to crack a truly viable set of global privacy standards, there is still an urgent need to address the privacy issues raised by data globalisation. As always, the answer is dialogue. Dialogue and a sense of common purpose. The USA and the EU in particular have some important work to do in the context of their trade discussions and review of Safe Harbor. First they must both acknowledge the differences and recognise that an area like privacy is full of historical connotations and fears. But most important of all, they must accept that principles-based frameworks can deliver a universal baseline of privacy protection. This means that efforts must be made by all involved to see what Safe Harbor and EU privacy law have in common – not what they lack. It is through those efforts that we will be able to create an environment of mutual recognition of approaches and ultimately, a global mechanism for protecting personal information.
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