EUComing out of Europe this week are two apparently opposite movements: one seeks stronger protections for Internet users’ personal information; the other, aims to relax intellectual property laws and allow the use of copyright materials without the owners’ approval.

At one end of the spectrum, the European Commission has called for strengthening the European Union’s already impressive data protection laws. Referring to the protection of personal data as a “fundamental right,” the Commission announced its intent to overhaul the EU’s data protection laws as they relate to social networking, personalized advertising, and other Web services that have raised privacy concerns.

The proposed reforms, set to be legislated next year, come in the wake of a number of online privacy scandals that have rocked Europe’s data protection concerns. Among these scandals was Facebook’s acknowledgment that some of its social networking applications passed personal information to marketers without the user’s knowledge.

The European data protection laws are often at the forefront of US attorney’s minds in the context of cross-border litigation and the discovery process. The broad US discovery rules contained in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure have historically clashed with European data protection laws; a legal dilemma increasingly amplified by the surge of e-discovery.

Converse to this greater concern for public privacy, is new legislation in the United Kingdom designed to liberalize the use of copyright material and make UK intellectual property rules “fit for the Internet age.” The impetus for the change is to make the UK a competitive forum for IT giants to invest, and the inspiration for the laws themselves — the American “fair use” doctrine.

However, there is no doubt that many in the music and film industries will resist such copyright reform, which proponents hope will give Internet users additional rights like personal copying and parodying of copyrighted material.

Thus, in Europe it appears that rapidly changing technology and the information age is pulling legislatures in opposite directions. On the one hand, there is a clear concern for individual rights and personal privacy in an era where our lives are lived online. On the other, there is a recognition that barriers to Internet business in the form of copyright, hinders online investment. So, in Europe at least, it appears governments are fighting to promote the Internet, while trying to protect citizens from it at the same time.

– Donna Baldry

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