Following a ten-day visit to Scandinavia, the first day of our brief return to Brussels included two of the most fascinating site visits of the program thus far. While today was quite busy and detail heavy, to summarize the subject matter in a few words would actually be quite a simple task: “data privacy”. The reality of this seemingly simple idea is ceaseless debates and complications with significant implications on citizens of the EU and worldwide. In a world where data has become such a valuable commodity, tensions surrounding international data policy are particularly high in current times. The site visits presented two distinct viewpoints on data privacy, the first from Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld and the second from Marc van der Ham, a legal consultant at Google Europe. Both visits offered valuable opportunities to analyze the issue of data privacy with leading experts on the subject while also allowing for detailed discussion of the current state of data policy.
After watching an impassioned Sophie in ‘t Veld speak fervently about data flows during our visit to the Parliament a few weeks ago, I immediately recognized her as an exceptional politician who fought tooth and nail for her beliefs. Listed in the top 40 most influential MEPs by Politico Magazine, in ‘t Veld works as the leading advocate for data privacy in the European Parliament. The opportunity to meet with such an esteemed MEP was not taken lightly by our group as we all arrived at the session eager for the dialogue with stimulating questions prepared. Ms. in ‘t Veld wasted no time as we immediately began a question and answer session that covered issues ranging from data privacy to counter terrorism measures. She spoke at length about the uphill battle she faces in fighting for data privacy and blocking mass surveillance. These topics included two key points of discussion: transatlantic relations and counterterrorism.
Due to data’s transnational nature, one of the most addressed topics in in ‘t Veld’s work has been the United States and its policies regarding data privacy. She believes that the EU has been too soft and willing to negotiate with the United States due to their close relationship with the EU and subsequently encourages the EU to take more resilient measures during negotiations. As an MEP, in ‘t Veld has voted against agreements including the Privacy Shield as she considered it to serve as an insufficient safeguard against mass surveillance. She has worked tirelessly to prevent the reduction of European data privacy and admits that politicians are to blame for the continued forfeiture of privacy for EU citizens. While pro mass surveillance policy has been a point of contention throughout in ‘t Veld’s fight for privacy, the largest underlying problem that continues to have negative effects on data protection legislation is counterterrorism and the preemptive detection of perpetrators of acts of terror.
In recent years, terrorism has become the most significant security issue worldwide, with organizations like ISIS recruiting countless members to train and commit attacks in the name of the organization. While often the idea of mass surveillance seems as though it could offer a way to catch potential terrorists prior to any violence occurring, in ‘t Veld believes this idea is ludicrous and simply will not work. To back up this ideology in ‘t Veld cites information including that governments almost always identify potential terrorists prior to their attacks and additionally that most of those radicalized by terrorist groups are weak individuals with troubled pasts. She argues that since warrants must be obtained to monitor people in the real world, then there is no reason to grant the government search rights without these same measures digitally. While there was somewhat of a consensus amongst the group on these issues, Ms. in ‘t Veld struck a controversial chord when she spoke of the recent shooting in Orlando.
Warning of overzealous fear of Islam and general xenophobia, in ‘t Veld challenged our group to make an effort to determine the true definition of terrorism. She stated that political motives were necessary in terrorist attacks and that people were too eager to label certain acts as terrorism. MEP in ‘t Veld was adamant that the act of heinous murder in Orlando in which fifty people lost their lives was not an act of terror, but was rather a hate crime carried out by an individual with a troubled past. This controversial opinion caused a rift to form between the MEP and our group. This view seemed to me to be inconsistent with other views held by in ‘t Veld. With this logic, I question whether or not she would consider events like the Jewish Museum attack acts of terror. Although I agree with in ‘t Veld that people are quick to label any attacks by Muslims terroristic in nature, I do not believe this was one of those times. To minimize one of the deadliest attacks in recent history due to the fact that the shooter had a troubled past seems to me to bogus and improper. This disagreement aside, I believe that Sophie in ‘t Veld’s work and stances on data privacy are crucial to the development of global cyber law and have immense respect for her as a politician.
Following this passionate discussion with Sophie in ‘t Veld, we made a visit to private sector giant, Google Europe. Marc van der Ham briefed the group in the sleek office-bar area of the modern office space. With a background in law and previous work experience in The EU Parliament, van der Ham offered us an excellent alternative to the first briefing of the morning. He spoke in length about topics focused around the legality of data flows and barriers to digital trade in which he included an interesting dialogue on data privacy. Additionally, van der Ham discussed the method Google used to rise to success and the future direction of Google.
During this interesting speech and the question and answer session that followed, van der Ham discussed the issue of data privacy and the international implications that accompany it. Perhaps the topic that struck me as most interesting of the discussion was The Commission’s attempts to limit Google’s power over the market. As a company Google uses a great deal of data to make suggestions to users and this has lead to concern over Google’s near monopoly on user data. Google has been fighting in court to prove that is a benevolent company and that it does not misuse user’s data. The outcome of this legal battle has yet to be seen; however, one thing is certain. Data is a valuable commodity that will continue to receive a great deal of legal attention in the years to come.
Ensuing our two stimulating site visits, our class debriefed at a local restaurant and discussed what we had spoken about with van der Ham and in ‘t Veld. The main point of contention was the comment made about the nature of the attack in Orlando. As American citizens, the majority of the class believed that this attack was an attack on terror and disagreed with in ‘t Veld on the point. Other than this one issue, it was evident that the class agreed with most of the positions in ‘t Veld presented. Mass surveillance is an issue that concerns all citizens of the digital world and it seemed to be the shared stance of the class that mass surveillance was not the answer to the security threat of terrorism. In addition to discussion about data privacy, another interesting dialogue occurred concerning the nature of the company of Google. The question as to whether or not Google is an “American” company interested me the most of the topics of this conversation. Although as a class there was a great deal of disagreement, I personally believe that Google is indeed an American company with global aspirations as it attempts to capture more of the global market. So far Google’s strategies have been wildly successful and I believe they will continue to be due to the ability to adapt and the widespread global use of its services. From data privacy to tech giants, today was a day full of detailed discussion that was by and large open ended. What will happen in the coming years regarding technology and data policy is yet to be seen; however, in such a digital world, developments in these areas will have great significance for people worldwide.