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The lobby-tomy 4: Innovation is the magic word

If there is one term that seems to be popular in the current political climate, it’s “innovation.” Lobbying is about convincing policy makers of the importance of your position. But is innovation really a good argument?

The new European data protection regulation is the most lobbied piece of legislation thus far because the subject is very important and touches upon almost every aspect of our daily lives. Therefore Bits of Freedom used the Dutch freedom of information act to ask the government to publicise all of the lobby documents they received on this new law. We published these documents with our analysis in English in a series of blogs for EDRi. This series of blogs has also been combined in one report. What parties lobby? What do they want? What does that mean for you?

Why innovation?
Why would the term innovation be used so much? In the first place, it’s because parties themselves are convinced that the policy proposals they make will lead to ‘innovation.’ Apart from that, innovation is ‘hip.’ But it’s also an empty word. As professor Neil Richards might say: you could replace the word “innovation” with the word “magic” and it wouldn’t alter the substantive meaning of the phrase.

So.. innovation!
Lobbies are attuned to this apparently convincing concept and the word surfaces quite often. For example, in the letters by VNO-NCW, the Dutch employers’ organisation. They argue that there should be fewer obligations imposed on companies, so they use the innovation argument quite happily. In a letter to the ministry of justice, they argue as a headline: “innovation is obstructed.” Underneath this header it says:

“Different strict prescriptions in the law limit all kinds of innovative applications. Opportunities that haven’t even been conceived of yet. Like for example applications with ‘big data’ and ‘the Internet of things.’”

Opportunities that haven’t even been conceived of yet! Magic!

“‘Big data’ enabled the prediction of the spread of a flu epidemic based on the search behaviour of consumers, even before those people had actually seen a doctor. The proposals limit this application in practice.”

How this limitation takes place in practice is not specified. It is also interesting to note that Google Flu Trends, which they are referring to, was criticized for being inaccurate. Apart from that, some suggest that Flu Trends will disappear to the background because it hasn’t delivered enough. One academic calls it an example of big data “hubris.”

The letter continues:

“The ‘Internet of things’, which requires that an increasing amount of utensils (heart meters, cars, coffee machines) are connected to the Internet, would also obstructed. The requirements of explicit consent and of visible uniform information are simply not applicable in all cases. Will consumers have to scroll through privacy statements on the tiny screen of the heart rate monitor and will the creator of a smart coffee machine have to build a consent button next to the cappuccino button?”

A funny example, but for an organisation that mentions innovation this much, not a very innovative approach to transparency and consent. No, it doesn’t have to be exactly like a cookie statement. Information and transparency can easily be provided through other means.

Other lobbies take a similar approach. Take a look at the email from Business Europe to the Dutch permanent representation to the EU, in which they say that big data will generate a lot of money, but only with the rules that they are lobbying for.

Future business models?
Media companies go one step further. Publishers of newspapers and magazines lobby for gaping holes in our privacy protection to enable “future business models.” In emails to the Dutch permanent representation they write that they should be able to discard the principle of purpose limitation for third parties. That’s really worrisome. Purpose limitation is a fundamental principle of data protection: it guarantees that if you share your data for one purpose, that data isn’t further processed for other purposes. You share your private information with your doctor in the knowledge that he or she doesn’t share it with others. Media companies want to discard that principle because they might need the data for future business models. We would sacrifice something without knowing what we get in return. That’s really problematic.

Innovation is not a ‘carte blanche’
In the economic domain, the false contradiction innovation vs. privacy proves very popular but it’s nonsense. It’s also persuasive. Who wants to be against “innovation”? The innovation argument should therefore always be treated with caution. As a society we should strive towards trust-inspiring privacy friendly innovation and not sacrifice our fundamental principles because someone promises the world to us.

To be continued
Want to continue reading about this? On the Bits of Freedom website, you can find all the lobby documents and the analysis. The next blog will be about “legal assistance”.

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