THE BLOG
07/10/2015 14:34 BST | Updated 07/10/2016 06:12 BST

Safe Harbour Ruling Demonstrates Yet Again That This Government Has a Black Hole Where a Data Policy Should Be

We need the Government to lead on data. But it is afraid that a strong data framework will prevent it selling off our data to reduce Government costs. The Government is risking our long term data future for short term political gain. It is afraid that if it stands up for the safeguarding of our data, we'll see its hands are already in the till.

This week's Safe Harbour ruling demonstrates yet again that this Government has a black hole where a data policy should be. Yes it was a European agreement which was struck down by a European Court, but Britain should have been playing a leading role at the heart of negotiations on data protection, with a clear and ethical data ownership framework to show the way, not frittering away its political capital on the side-lines, caught between inaction and avarice.

Firstly and most importantly this has been a long time coming, 15 years to be precise, since the safe harbour accords were implemented. That's at least three Internet lifetimes, some might argue five, unlike dog lifetimes Internet lifetimes seem to be getting shorter.

When I went to work as Head of Telecoms Technology for Ofcom in 2004 the brief was to avoid regulating the Internet, now the question is not whether the Internet should be regulated but how to do so in a way which maintains innovation, availability and choice. At least that is the question most people are asking. As this Government has singularly failed to produce any kind of white or green paper on the communications sector we have no idea what questions it is or isn't asking.

When you add to this the rise of Big Data making information on people - and things, but mainly people - the fastest growing commodity by value then it was absolutely obvious that major changes would be necessary. The final icing on the cake of obsolescence for safe harbour were the Snowden revelations highlighting specifically that the US security services have different obligations with regard to transparency and proportionality between US citizens anywhere in the world and EU citizens (and their data) in the US.

Obviously change was going to come. That's one of the reasons why, in opposition, we called for a comprehensive ethical review of data, to give UK citizens ownership of their public sector data at the very least. Instead we have a chaotic mishmash of data handling policies across government. The Treasury alone has over 130 different ways of sharing your data. Some Whitehall departments are happy to share it with big corporations without asking you - demonstrated by the Department for Health with the care.data fiasco. Others are paralysed by fear and so miss out on the huge benefits that data can bring to public service innovation and improvement.

Government, citizens and business need to know where they stand. Our privacy, better public services, and more innovative businesses are at stake. Ministers, or their officials at least, have been aware of this data train coming down the tracks for some time yet they have been ignoring it, and ignoring the impact and ramifications on citizens and businesses. The actual ruling will probably not impact Google and Facebook too severely, they have the resources and buyer power to negotiate agreements and site their (your) data anywhere in the world.

No, it's small businesses who will be hit, the innovators, short on cash flow, long on ideas, who should be creating the jobs of the future.

What is this Government going to do to help them? It would be lovely to know.

This is not the first time government has gone missing in EU data action. Indeed right now, the crucial and related general data protection regulation (GDPR) talks are hitting a critical stage of negotiations with key issues such as consent explicit versus unambiguous, legitimate interest in data processing and data protection officers on the table. And what has this Government done? Shuffled responsibility for it around Whitehall.

We should be leading on this across Europe instead of sitting on the side-lines waiting and debating the tory leadership. There is a real need for a strong voice positioned between American laissez faire and the approach of some European countries which seems to be if it's data and it moves, stop it. That approach threatens the great, secure, services and business models which a people's, rather than a State or Corporate data policy could enable.

The problem is the Government is too busy trying to negotiate its way out of Europe rather than arguing for a strong data policy within Europe. Perhaps it also hopes that bureaucratic data policies will encourage business to reject membership of the European Union. We need the Government to lead on data. But it is afraid that a strong data framework will prevent it selling off our data to reduce Government costs. The Government is risking our long term data future for short term political gain. It is afraid that if it stands up for the safeguarding of our data, we'll see its hands are already in the till.