Taking the privacy message to MEPs

Ryan in the European ParliamentI’m Ryan Jendoubi — programmer, aspiring lawyer, and member of ORG’s Supporter Council. On Wednesday I arrived back from Brussels where ORG’s Peter Bradwell and I were meeting with other members of European Digital Rights (EDRi). We were there to be briefed on the current status of the EU’s proposed new Data Protection Regulation, and then meet with MEPs and their staff to advocate for stronger privacy protections.

The trip – a sort of European Parliament safari – forms part of the Naked Citizens campaign, which is all about giving people control of their personal information.

I think most people have a decent grasp of what “data protection” should be about, namely protecting the personal information and privacy of citizens. However, even that basic, common-sense starting point seems to be lost on some industry lobbyists and political groupings in Brussels.

I was shocked to find that, despite having had European rules on data protection since 1995, many of the amendments which have been tabled in the last few months would have the effect of completely unravelling the protections currently in place, when we should of course be aiming to consolidate and strengthen those protections for the ever more data-rich world in which we live.

Our discussions with MEPs were focussed on five primary areas of concern: the definition of consent (how clear an organisation has to be when asking for your data), purpose limitation (how much they have to tell you about what they’ll do with your data), the “legitimate interest” principle (the scope of an organisation’s right to use your data without your consent), profiling (making automated decisions about you based on personal data they’ve collected) and “pseudonymous data” (data about you, but with your name removed).

That might seem like a lot to get your head around, but it’s a pretty good distillation of a proposal that comprises 91 Articles and almost four thousand proposed amendments — I was entirely new to all this of course, but apparently four thousand is quite a lot!

You can find out about each of these topics in section three of the Naked Citizens report, written by ORG and other EDRi members (my personal favourite problem is pseudonymous data, but I’ll refrain from going off on one here).

The two meetings I had with MEPs’ advisers contrasted drastically.

The first advisor worked for an Austrian MEP called Hubert Pirker, who had co-signed several of the amendments we think would be very damaging for people’s privacy, for example suggesting the removal of the word ‘explicit’ from the definition of consent (see these two amendments, for example) and the broadening of the ‘legitimate interest’ principle (see these two amendments).

It was good to have the opportunity to engage with him, and we got some good points in. He listened to our arguments very politely, but the overall impression was that they were pretty set in their views.

On the other hand the second person we met, the assistant to MEP Carlos Coelho, despite being an advisor to an MEP in the same conservative grouping as the first, was very keen to listen, to acquire factual arguments to counter those she had been hearing from insurance industry lobbyists just hours before!

That experience showed me the immense value in seeing past party affiliations, getting to know MEPs and advisers as individuals and having ongoing relationships with them.

In addition to that, the trip was a lesson in why having full-time campaign groups like ORG and EDRi is so essential. It’s not just the keeping up with legislative developments (again, four thousand amendments). They do the running around giving briefings and meeting politicians and advisers, be it in London or Brussels, and help to connect citizens with politicians and policy makers too. I was fortunate that on this occasion my employer was flexible enough to let me sneak off to the continent for three days, but volunteer work alone would not win this fight.

You know that companies which stand to have their exploitation of people’s data curtailed have staff working the halls of power 24/7. ORG and its sister organisations in EDRi are there to make sure that we have a voice at the table as well.

At the same time, making sure MEPs hear citizens’ voices directly, whether it is through a visit to their office, a phone call, a postcard or an email, is really important. MEPs need to know that their constituents care about what they are doing, are watching the decisions they are taking, and want to see their privacy rights respected.

That’s why ORG and the other members of EDRi have launched their Naked Citizens campaign. You can send a postcard or email to your MEP from the campaign site

As a little coda to the heavy politicising, one other thing I enjoyed in the EU Parliament was walking the members’ corridors and seeing national decorations, the tourism materials for their various home counties, posters for small film showings in the Parliament, notice boards with ads for dance lessons, day-care, or a second-hand coffee table for €10… all the little human things.

For me, as for a lot people I think, politics is a bit like a force of nature which happens a long way away for reasons I don’t fully understand and occasionally upsets things — sort of like solar flares. So seeing the human side of it is quite nice. Or scary, perhaps. For example, I also saw a large green bear.