Reinventing Privacy

Who’s pulling the cart on data protection? At least in Germany, that has traditionally been government’s role, and that has made the German regulatory environment one of the fiercest in the world for foreign enterprises and organizations. U.S. companies in particular are often reluctant to enter the German market for fear of running afoul of the strict laws, but the same actually goes for the EU as a whole. Witness Amazon Web Services decision to build two separate clouds, one (based in Dublin) for Europe and another for the rest of the world.

So it may come as a surprise to hear a voice raised in Germany demanding a whole new deal on data protection. Sven Gábor Jánszky is head on 2B Ahead, a think tank based in Halle, a backwoods town in the wilds of former East Germany. Presumably that gives him enough time to think deeply about serious issues such as Digital Identity.

His solution may sound simple – let business take care of it – but it isn’t. And especially coming from someone in the typically paternalistic Old Europe, it’s downright seditious.

And what is even more surprising was that ARD, the largest German TV station, gave Mr. Jánszky a spot on its prime time “Tagesthemen” news show to voice his opinion. “We need to reinvent data protection”, he told an audience of millions of German watchers, “and business, especially the IT business, needs to take the lead.”

How often do identity gurus in the U.S. get to air their views on 60 minutes?

Anyway, Jánszky thinks that the concept of the state protecting people’s privacy is so 20th century. “They want to share their personal information”, he believes, and it’s the job of business to help them do it in a controlled fashion. He thinks it’s high time the industry creates a system that will allow everyone to distribute personal information freely, but retain a final say in where it goes and how it’s used. For starters, he says, companies should provide users full disclosure on what data about them they have stored. This would be a first step towards establishing a trust relationship, and that is something any company should be interested in. Trust leads to loyalty, and that means return customers and more moola in the till.

The role of government, Jánszky says, is simple: Stop trying to build walls around the consumer and instead focus on passing laws that enable companies to use personal information, provided they do so in a responsible way and with the full content and oversight of the consumer.

This may not sound all that new to some within the identity community. But then, has anybody been on national TV lately to espouse their views? The Germans may be behind (or ahead, depending on your point of view) in terms of draconian privacy laws, but at least they have a public discussion going. Wonder where it will lead…

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