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Is EU approach to privacy the appropriate one for us?

I resisted the notion that we should start our work on guidelines for”big data” from the settled law of other jurisdictions. I did not do that in 1987 when I did one of the earliest policy studies on ICTs and the law in Sri Lanka, and I was not about to start in 2013. I had reservations about both the chaotic and piecemeal nature of US privacy law and the over-bureaucratic nature of European law that made even a simple list of course attendees a subject of “data protection” enforced by a Data Protection Commissioner. In addition, I sensed that big data was a qualitative jump from what existed before and it was wrong to simply extrapolate from the existing law.

Looks like I was right.

In a joint letter, twenty-eight of Europe’s leading academics have warned that European Union data protection laws risk harming vital research, especially social and health-related studies.

Recent amendments to the data protection laws adopted by the European Parliament earlier this year will make personal information which gets collected in scientific research become a protected form of data. Many European scientists are concerned at the impact this law might have, particularly in areas like smoking-related diseases and child nutrition.

According to a European Commission press release, scientific research ‘stands to benefit from proposed data protection reform’. Their only explanation for this is because under the current system the conditions for health data processing are not harmonised.

The reforms are being driven by the idea that a single data protection regime is better than 28 separate ones (by each of the 28 member states) and a ‘level-playing field’ is something which will emerge as a result of harmonisation. But the real playing field for Britain is the global economy, not Europe. Now is not the time to restrict vital EU research for any reason, let alone for the sake of broad-brush data protection laws.

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