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Insight

Guns and privacy have more in common than you think

Phil Lee
13/01/2015
When speaking with US companies, how do you explain the importance that EU consumers place on their data protection rights?  Oftentimes, I do this by referring to the US right to bear arms.Whether for

When speaking with US companies, how do you explain the importance that EU consumers place on their data protection rights?  Oftentimes, I do this by referring to the US right to bear arms.

Whether for or against guns, pretty much every American has a strong view on this issue.  And why wouldn't they?  The right to bear arms is a constitutional right for US citizens.  Over in the EU, we have the Charter of Fundamental Rights - not quite a constitution, but pretty close to it.  This doesn't enshrine a right to bear arms, but it does enshrine both a right to privacy (Art 7) and a right to data protection (Art 8) for all EU citizens.

So I start by explaining that Europeans have constitutional-like rights to privacy and data protection, and that they feel as strongly about these rights as Americans do about their second amendment rights.  Once I've drawn this analogy, US companies quickly grasp the 'EU privacy issue' and understand the need for comprehensive measures to address EU data protection compliance.

In fact, the analogy between guns and privacy doesn't end there.  At the risk of extending the analogy to breaking point, it can also be applied to debates about government surveillance and gun control.

Consider this: in the EU, there's widespread ongoing concern over excessive government surveillance of telephone and internet communications.  These concerns are fuelled largely by fears that the data collected might be used by governments to exert Orwellian control over their citizens.   As it happens, fear of an abusive government is also part of what drives many of the heated debates over US gun control: a fear that, by restricting citizens' right to bear arms, a dystopian future government might in some way turn against a citizenship that has no ability to defend itself.

Not everyone feels this way though.  Some argue that allowing some level of government incursion into citizens' civil liberties affords us greater protection, either by disrupting potential terrorist threats or by preventing accidental or deliberate gun deaths, and that these incursions are necessary in light of the present-day threats we face.  The issues are complex and, whether it comes to guns or privacy, the emotive arguments presented by both sides to the discourse often seem to present an insurmountable barrier to consensus.

Perhaps this is the way it should be, though.  When fundamental human or constitutional rights are at stake, they should attract impassioned debate - that's the imperative of a democratic society.  Because debating these issues calls into question the very type of society we want to be:  are we a society that accepts a level of surveillance in return for greater assurance of physical safety?  Or should we be a society that protects freedom of communication at all cost?

There are no easy answers, and the debate will often be determined by cultural sensitivities and topical news events.  But, as difficult as consensus can sometimes seem, we witnessed one wonderfully positive example of it today.  Speaking at the Federal Trade Commission, President Obama announced four major new privacy initiatives in the US.  These included a federal data breach notification standard, easier access to credit scores, and new protections for student data.

Most critically, though, President Obama announced that federal consumer privacy legislation would be introduced by the end of February and called on Congress to make this new legislation "the law of the land".  The new legislation will address data processing transparency, control, purpose limitation, security and accountability, across all sectors.  In other words, the White House acknowledges the need for federal data protection standards across the entirety of the US that will to a large degree mirror those that EU citizens enjoy today.  A form of transatlantic consensus, if you will.

So maybe there'll come a time in the very near future where I won't have to explain how passionately Europeans feel about their privacy because American consumers will also enjoy, and feel as strongly about, these rights.  Maybe consensus building on privacy issues, across continents if not across different schools of thought, is possible.  And maybe - no, certainly - continuing the dialogue to enshrine and protect our data protection rights worldwide is now more important and more achievable than ever.

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