Selection of Opinion - Editorials
A new era for privacy by Thorbjørn Jagland
New media are challenging the traditional boundaries of data protection. This year's Data Protection Day – 28 January – takes place against a backdrop of international controversy, with debate raging on the rights and wrongs of Wikileaks, users of social media waking up to the privacy pitfalls of online life, and individuals exercising their right to opt out of Google's Street View.
When Data Protection Day was launched five years ago, Wikileaks was a few months from launch and Facebook was in its infancy. Our idea of data protection was focused on the individual's right to keep his or her private information truly private.
The march of technology has blown wide open the whole issue of privacy, freedom of expression, and the limits of that freedom; and it has made data protection both a social and economic imperative. The debate has changed, the private and the public spheres are no longer distinguishable, and both policymakers and the public find themselves in very unfamiliar territory.
The reverberations from Wikileaks' publication of so many confidential documents will be felt for years to come. The number of adamant supporters of the site's actions is matched by those calling for stringent crackdowns. The affair has shaken the idea of diplomatic secrecy, but it has also presented us with an opportunity to look at how we ensure transparency and accountability in the future. Wikileaks has also challenged traditional notions of journalism, bringing up fresh challenges to both media freedom and journalists' working practices, but it has vindicated some old values: after all, much of Wikileaks' impact came about because of reporting by journalists from traditional media.
The advent of new communication technologies is changing the world as surely as the spinning jenny transformed the textile industry and the world's economies; and just as no one could foresee the long-term impact of the Industrial Revolution, no more can anyone predict the future now. If Wikileaks is forced to close, a thousand more sites will spring up in its place – indeed, some former Wikileaks collaborators are in the process of launching an alternative, Openleaks. We cannot even predict with any certainty how communications technology is going to evolve, and the impact it will have on both our personal relationships and the way we organise our societies.
The accepted paradigms no longer work, and any attempt to use old tools are doomed to failure. So, is there any need for the Council of Europe Data Protection Convention?
It was pioneering when it was launched in 1981, and in the 30 years since the Convention has served as the backbone of international law in 40 European countries and influenced policy and legislation far beyond Europe's shores.
Today it is a necessity, as personal information is constantly recorded, communicated and analysed, often without our knowledge, let alone our consent – especially so in the cyberworld, where data-harvesting is all too common.
At a time when the boundaries between privacy and freedom have become fudged, work to revise the Convention will be a demanding process. It will force us to face those issues that are causing so much public controversy at present. Where is the boundary? How do we ensure that the individual and society are protected to the optimum, and that a balance is struck that helps us to decide what is truly in the public interest?
The Council of Europe is in a strong position to explore these questions. Most importantly, our work is firmly rooted in an unshakeable belief in human rights and transparency. These are the principles that guided our work to draw up the original Data Protection Convention 30 years ago, and they will be the same ones that guide our work now.
Today's news is Wikileaks; tomorrow there will be new challenges. In a fast-changing world, we must be able to adapt to new realities. The question is how to adjust the boundaries. For this, the one fundamental value on which modern Europe is built – the human-rights principles set out in the European Convention of Human Rights – must be our guiding line when we seek to revise the Data Protection Convention and adapt it to new communication challenges.