European drive for online privacy and security

MEPs will push for a re-think of the balance between the need for security and the right to privacy on the Internet, they agreed Thursday

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Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) will push for a re-think of the balance between the need for security and the right to privacy on the Internet, not just in Europe but around the world, they agreed during a debate at the Parliament on Thursday.

They supported a report which calls on the 27 countries in the European Union and the European Commission, its executive body, to define global standards for data protection, security and freedom of expression.

The author of the report, Greek socialist MEP Stavros Lambrinidis, said the move is vital at a time when people's digital identity is becoming an integral part of their actual identity.

One specific demand in the report is for a strict definition of a user's "consent" to share his data, given the unequal balance of powers between users, private companies or governments.

Another is that the right of access to the Internet should be considered equal to the right to education, and should never be blocked by governments or private companies.

The report debated Thursday drew support from academics, civil liberties groups and Europe's data protection supervisor Peter Hustinx, who warned against applying less strict data protection rules to the Internet than the protection expected in daily life.

Hustinx said the term 'cyberspace' implied that the Internet is removed from real life, and that this was a very wrong impression. "The Internet is increasingly an integral part of our daily life. We must apply the same values as we do in our society; fundamental rights must apply there," he said.

Gus Hosein, a representative of the civil liberties pressure group Privacy International, was concerned that with the departure of George W Bush from the White House, Europe has become the standard-bearer for the security-obsessed, and he called for lawmakers in Europe to reverse a trend towards more security and fewer civil liberties in European lawmaking that began with the terrorist attacks on the US in 2001.

He referred specifically to the European data retention directive passed in the wake of terrorist attacks in Spain and the UK in 2005, which forces Internet service providers and telecoms companies to hold on to data generated by their subscribers beyond the normal period required for billing purposes.

This view was backed by Professor Steve Peers of Essex University, who presented the key points of his study on strengthening security and fundamental freedoms on the Internet and EU policy on combating cyber-crime.

The report will be debated by the fully plenary of the European Parliament when it meets in Strasbourg at the end of this month.

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