UK justice secretary Kenneth Clarke, that hip jazz cat and political relic of a bygone age wheeled in by prime minister David Cameron to appease the Tory patrician old guard, has been sounding off in Brussels about European Commission plans to implement a revised data protection law. Clarke disapproves of the idea, and to the British Chamber of Commerce he has explained why.
The commission plans are in public consultation, and there has been a considerable amount of constructive criticism of ideas floated by vice president Viviane Reding and others. That is surely all to the good, as it increases the chances of any new data protection regulations being fair and enforceable. Clarke’s intervention does not fall into the category of constructive criticism.
So what has Clarke been saying?
“A preoccupation with imposing a single, inflexible, codified data protection regime on the whole of the European Union, regardless of the different cultures and different legal systems, carries with it serious risks.”
“Let us keep the broad principles of the existing Directive and better understand the 27 laws we all in our nation states have, rather than setting out to create in detail an additional 28th radically different, and artificial new set of laws.”
Different cultures there may be across EU member states, but in this context one could argue that the differences are trivial. You could even say that what the various legal jurisdictions share is a failure to acknowledge technological reality and its implications for the openness-privacy balance characteristic of liberal democracy. The reason why Reding and her colleagues are so keen to deal with this issue is the pressing need to face up to legal and ethical challenges presented by rapid advances in information technology.
Reading between the lines of his generally vacuous Brussels speech, what the justice secretary appears to favour is an information free-for-all that allows commercial concerns to retain sensitive personal data indefinitely. And what really beggars belief is that Clarke justifies this with reference to medical records and the like. Has the minister no awareness of the fundamental differences between medical data, financial records and inane online ramblings? And let’s not forget the redemptive power of the delete button.
“I am optimistic that there’s a common sense solution on this. Our experience in the UK is that security, freedom and privacy are possible.”
That is all very well, but such a solution will rely on policymakers knowing what they are talking about. Going by the evidence presented here, my impression is that Kenneth Clarke hasn’t a clue. On the other hand, if the public continues to respond to the European Commission call for open debate on its proposals, the end result will quite likely be based on common sense.
Kenneth Clarke really needs to get up to speed on this stuff. He should understand that it’s actually quite important, and that the devil is in the detail, not pointless political rhetoric.