Big Data in Brussels

27 March 2013 Volha attended a TechAmerica Seminar “A Data-Driven World: the Value of Data Today” (http://www.techamerica.org/data-driven-world/) that took place in Brussels at Bibliothéque Solvay, just steps away from the European Parliament.

Data BrusselsDuring the opening remarks, the significance of big data for Europe’s future was emphasised, with reference made to the “Big Data Revolution” speech by the Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda, Neelie Kroes, delivered at the EIT Foundation Annual Innovation Forum the day before (http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_SPEECH-13-261_en.htm). In the speech, big data was called “the new oil”, “a fuel for innovation, powering and energising” the European economy.  However, “[u]nlike oil [the well of big data] won’t run dry: [and] we’ve only just started tapping it”. This was also one of the main themes of the event, i.e. the promise that big data has for European businesses. The seminar speakers addressed various aspects related to big data, from the opportunities to the challenges it presents, although the focus was mostly on the former. The role of analytics was also emphasised, as it is this that unlocks the potential of big data.

John Boswell, Senior Vice President, Chief Legal Officer and Corporate Secretary, SAS, provided an introduction with the focus on the confluence of forces that allowed for the rise of big data as a valuable resource (including an unprecedented creation of data; unprecedented connectivity; cheap storage of data and powerful analytical tools), and forces that aimed at using it for malevolent purposes (e.g., hacking, espionage). Katherine Butler, General Counsel, Software Center of Excellence, Global Research Center, General Electric Company, talked about the ‘industrial Internet’ and presented several case studies of how big data analytics make a difference for companies. In his presentation, Paul Mitchell, General Manager for Technology Policy, Microsoft, talked about the evolving privacy landscape and possible ways of putting users back in control of their data as much as possible. In particular, he stressed that data is increasingly obtained passively, with the user unaware of many data transactions. What constitutes personal data (PD) has also changed: it used to be pre-determined, but now it is contextual, and that is something that needs to be appreciated for the purposes of regulation.

One of the repeated themes during the event was the need to distinguish between ‘industrial’ (commercial) data and PD, with data protection rules only applicable to the latter (data should be ‘liberated’, so that it could be ‘harnessed’). This should be read in light of the on-going reform of the EU Data Protection regulatory framework (Draft Regulation http://ec.europa.eu/justice/data-protection/document/review2012/com_2012_11_en.pdf; UK ICO’s Analysis Paper: http://www.ico.org.uk/~/media/documents/library/Data_Protection/Research_and_reports/ico_proposed_dp_regulation_analysis_paper_20130212_pdf.ashx; Draft Directive http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=CELEX:52012PC0010:en:NOT) and negotiations  regarding a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2013/feb/13/us-and-eu-transatlantic-trade-liberalisation).

Thus, the recent stage of the revision of the Data Protection Regulation has reportedly been marked by active lobbying on behalf of big US technical companies, something that Seán Kelly, MEP (MEP of the Year For Research and Innovation in 2012), who presented an update on the revision process at the seminar, refuted. Importantly, the UK, along with some other member states, has also joined the US in lobbying for relaxation of the data regulation to avoid negative impact on businesses (http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2013/mar/07/uk-us-eu-data-protection-rules).