IGF 2010, 14-17 September 2010, Vilnius (Lithuania)

Open forum: Internet openness and privacy, 15 September

Speech by Andreja Rihter, Rapporteur of the PACE Committee on Culture, Science and Education, Member of the Slovenian Parliament

The right to privacy is a concept, which developed one hundred and twenty years ago when print media and photography expanded rapidly. It was a new experience to see one’s own picture in a newspaper or film. People were not necessarily at comfort with this situation and demanded respect for their privacy.

Today, we are filmed by video cameras in streets and shops. Everyone can take pictures with their mobile phone. People are ready to put private pictures and details on their own web presence or are included in the web content of others. Local public registers become truly public to everyone in the world – private individuals as well as companies. Private information has become the source of so far unknown commercial exploitation at a sheer gigantic dimension.

Individuals might nowadays accept to a greater extent that private details about them are in the global public domain on the Internet. But this development has also created new risks and dangers.

Under the European Convention on Human Rights, states are obliged to protect the private life of individuals through law. People can waive this right. Such a waiver requires normally an informed consent by an adult.

In addition, the Council of Europe has developed the Convention 108 on the automatic processing of personal data, looking at the interrelation of technology and privacy.

Privacy is protected differently in different parts of the world. It may be difficult to harmonise national approaches around the world. In some countries, it is largely left to the private sector to agree on common standards with their customers or users. In other countries, privacy invasion can be a criminal offence.

Nevertheless, I believe Internet users will have common interests in protecting their privacy irrespective of where they are. This might include uneasiness with pictures of minors or personal details about one’s private life such as health information. Most people are also worried if companies exploit their private data for commercial purposes – profiling is the key subject in this context.

It is therefore important to share as widely as possible common concerns, and raise globally common awareness, regarding privacy risks and rights on the Internet. I would have, for example, the following questions:

a. Privacy laws should apply in a technology neutral manner, because in principle it does not make a difference whether your private picture is published in a newspaper or on the Internet. It may make a difference, however, whether your privacy was infringed for commercial purposes, e.g. by a newspaper or Website trying to sell better, or by a private person with no financial interests, e.g. publishing it in a chat room.

b. A publication on the Internet may stay on the Web for an indefinite time, while a printed publication will be out of circulation after a while and pictures broadcast on television will be available for a moment only. Images of child pornography victims have, for instance, been notoriously circulating on the Internet and the victims or their families could do little to stop this.

c. The Web also allows everyone to open up his or her own privacy, for example by publishing personal data or even naked pictures. Can the right to privacy be waived, for instance by minors? Does human dignity prohibit a total waiver of privacy?

d. For many, it has become normal to “Google” persons by their names before they meet them. Commercial firms are offering profiles of individuals via the Internet, ranging from professional backgrounds to criminal registers, from private information to family and business relations, from birth notices to death notices. Are individuals an “open source”, or should they be protected? Does anything published on the Internet become part of the public domain, or is it still private?

e. The World Wide Web allows us to act anonymously or use different names and even identities. On the other hand, each move on the Web leaves an electronic trace. Anonymity may be a safeguard for one’s privacy, but it may also pose a higher risk of criminal activity. In any case, the traceability of Internet users is much greater. Does privacy include a right to remain anonymous on the Internet? A technology neutral approach may also be helpful in this case: On a physical highway, you are not obliged to identify yourself unless you violate the law applicable on that highway or pursue an activity with potential liabilities. The same may be applied to the data highway.

f. The right to privacy includes the right to secrecy of correspondence. How can this include emails as well as private Internet postings?

g. Since users of the Web 2.0 create voluntarily their own virtual spaces and realities, they can also create additional social or ethical rules for their relations among themselves. Those self-imposed rules may be stricter in protecting the privacy of their users. The latter is particularly helpful for chat rooms for minors.

h. The right to privacy applies not only to individuals, but also to legal entities such as commercial firms. This is particularly relevant with regard to client and business information of such firms – and commercial privacy may be worth a lot.

i. The Web may also be affected by intrusions and hacking. This is regarded as a criminal offence under the international Cybercrime Convention produced by the Council of Europe.

This Forum gives you the opportunity to express your views on this subject, and I am happy to listen to you in order to reflect your contributions in my future parliamentary report. Thank you very much for your co-operation.