Right to be forgotten should be limited, says European Parliament vice president

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A section in a draft European Union data protection proposal guaranteeing the right of individuals to selectively prevent personal data from being propagated has little support as it's currently written, said Alexander Alvaro, the German vice president of the European Parliament.

The right to be forgotten "has to be limited to the point where we're talking about judicially, clearly examined, illegal violations of rights," Alvaro said Dec. 4 while speaking an event of the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee in Washington, D.C.

In cases where a court has ruled that an individuals' right to privacy has been violated, "then somehow it has to be enforced," Alvaro said, citing the case of Max Mosley. The now-defunct U.K. tabloid News of the World in 2008 printed photographs of Mosley, then president of the organization behind Formula One racing, partaking in a German prison camp-themed sadomasochist orgy with prostitutes in a London apartment. He successfully sued the newspaper for invasion of privacy and received £60,000 in damages.

Asked if a politician who tweeted an embarrassing photo of body parts should be able to delete it under the right to be forgotten, Alvaro said he doesn't see a reason "why we should create a law which basically would give you the right to delete that."

The difference between that Anthony Weiner-type situation and News of the World's Mosley photos is that a court found a privacy violation in the latter, Alvaro said.

The right to be forgotten will not be used as a tool curtailing freedom of expression, he added.

"The European Union is not a banana republic and will not become one by the right to be forgotten," he said.

Other aspects of the draft proposal that may also need revision include strict language on explicit consent for the use of personal data, he said. There likely are cases where implicit consent is sufficed, such as when someone downloads an app that requires geolocation data in order to function.

Alvaro also said he's pushing for context-based privacy protection. "A one size fits all approach probably won't work," he said, positing a difference between a name and address data breach associated with a banal activity such as a newspaper subscription, as opposed to that same data breach when associated with something more sensitive, such as medical treatment.

The European Union and the United States have common interests in enacting data protection rights despite differing approaches, he also said.

"No country in a globalized world will be able to stand alone if you have competitors rising like up like China, like India, like Brazil," he said. "They will set standards, because they just can do so by their markets. …If we don't agree, they might just approach us in a divide and conquer manner."

It's been difficult to get the attention of lawmakers in Congress, Alvaro said, adding that it's been difficult for European Parliament members to arrange meetings with congressmen. "We are not the necessary center of interest, which I can understand, but it makes it very difficult to exchange views, to be polite."

It is true that European countries are more sensitive than others about privacy issues, he said. "Most of our countries have been subject to dictators' regimes, to suppression…all of these regimes have used available data against their own citizens.

"That is maybe why there is a very, very high sensitive to what happens with citizens' data, when it's our there somewhere."

For more:
- listen to Alvaro speaking Dec. 4 at the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee  

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