In just a relatively brief period of time, the internet has become such a central component of people’s daily lives that the United Nations declared that access to the internet is a fundamental human right. The speed at which the internet has become an inexorable part of daily life has made it difficult to consider the full range of consequences that might arise as a result, particularly as it relates to questions of privacy and access to internet user data.
The rapid rise of the internet as an essential part of people’s lives is one reason that the United States and the European Union have taken such divergent paths when it comes to issues of personal privacy on the internet. The European Union’s rules and regulations are based more on the need to protect an individual’s right to privacy and are thus much more consumer-oriented than the rules and regulations favored by the United States.
According to Aaron Minc, a US-based attorney who specializes in internet defamation, the stark contrast between the rules and regulations of the United States and the European Union are reflective of subtle differences in the policymaking process. In the European Union, policymakers developed rules and regulations centered on the idea that protecting individual privacy should be the principal objective.
While developing rules and regulations designed to protect personal privacy — including, for example, “The Right to Be Forgotten” — EU policymakers added certain exceptions to protect free speech as well. In the United States, however, policymakers focused on robust free speech protections as the central objective, with certain exceptions included to protect individual privacy.
In highlighting the differences in the policymaking process, Minc also pointed out the contrast in the oversight and enforcement of the rules and regulations enacted by the EU and the US. While the EU has only slight variances in how the rules and regulations apply to and how they are enforced in different sectors, the US has what many have called a “patchwork quilt” of rules and regulations that not only vary depending on the state but are also subject to drastic changes depending on which political party is in control.
Of course, the way personal user data is handled represents the principal difference between the internet privacy policies of the EU and the US. The privacy rules and regulations in the EU ensure citizens have some measure of control over how their personal user data is handled and how it may be used in the future. Internet users in the United States have far less control over how their personal data is used and how long it will remain available to an internet service provider, for example.
In the EU, there is also the expectation that after a period of time of time the personal data will become, as the European Court of Justice declared in its ruling on internet privacy rights, “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed.” This is not the case in the US, where free speech advocates worry that such a policy could place limitations on the public’s ability to access information.