Protecting Privacy in a Fast Evolving, More Complex Digital World: The necessity of Privacy International Standards

Prof. Dr. Artemi Rallo

Constitutional Law Professor  at Jaume I University (Spain) and Phaedra Project Partner

Former Director of the Data Protection Spanish Agency, Deputy Chair of the Article 29 Working Party and Chair of the Data Protection Latin America Network


If there is one sector in which the need for a quick legal response is particularly important, it is new technologies. In this digital environment we are not dealing with a revolution, but with a constant, rapid evolution. While technology has clear and obvious advantages, its widespread use also presents challenges.

For this reason, we need to reflect on the challenges that we face, on which agents are involved and how we can protect privacy appropriately.

We can identify three challenges in this digital environment:

Firstly, the fast development of tools that allow mass use of information in a more perfect way and that offer a multitude of information-processing possibilities. This results in at least two knock-on effects: a´) The possibility to store, process and transfer large quantities of information, which has contributed to the high economic value of these services. On the Internet, personal information is a leading source of wealth. The most obvious example of this can be seen in advertising being individually tailored according to our browsing habits - behavioural advertising.  B´) Omnipresence is another phenomenon in this field today, which can be seen the convergence of Internet services with mobile technology.

Another challenge that we face is the transnational nature of these services:  Companies operate in dozens of countries with different legal frameworks. At the same time, data are no longer kept in a specific location, but are rather spread among hundreds of servers around the world, as is the case with cloud computing.

Finally, but no less importantly, the Internet gives everyone a presence and a voice. The digital world has changed the role of individuals. People have also taken on an active role, which poses a challenge to current privacy regulations. People express themselves in blogs, microblogging networks or they share their experiences on social networks.


All of these factors, together with the increasing complexity of society, technology and business structures, lead us to consider the nature of the roles and responsibilities of users, business and governments.

The clearest example of the complexity in assigning responsibility can be found in online social networks. When publishing information on a social network, who is responsible?

The Article 29 Working Party has looked into this situation and come up with a series of criteria. A paradoxical situation arises in which an individual becomes both the active and passive subject, making decisions on the information they process. This means such a person may be considered the processing controller, in the terminology of data protection legislation, subject to the same obligations as controllers.

It is important to clarify that data protection legislation excludes data processing carried out by people "carrying out exclusively personal or domestic activities".

The Article 29 Working Party has set out some situations in which processing by social network users may go above and beyond this domestic activity exception.

The first situation is when the user uses the social network as a collaboration platform for an association or company, for commercial, political or social purposes.

Another sign of the domestic scope being exceeded is when the user clearly has more contacts than could rationally be considered to be real contacts, for example when a user has willingly allowed a large number of contacts or a whole social network to access their data.

There is a third important case in which a user may be considered to be a data processing controller. This is in cases where processing of other people's data violates these third parties' rights. In other words, the domestic activity exception is also limited by the need to guarantee rights, particularly in relation to sensitive data.

When any of the aforementioned circumstances arise, individuals are obliged to offer certain security guarantees: to ensure the confidentiality of the information published, and to offer measures for users to exercise their data protection rights.


But businesses also play a fundamental role. The complexity of businesses that operate on a global scale and that outsource services must also be studied.

It is important to determine who is in control of processing the data (that is, who determines the purpose to which it will be put), as this helps to ensure greater effectiveness in compliance.

The tendency in data protection regulations is to combine proactive and reactive measures to ensure compliance (which may include self-regulation measures). Reactive measures are applied when data have been processed unlawfully.

It is necessary to mention the principle of Accountability.  This principle, which was included in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's privacy guidelines back in 1980, requires the processing controller to implement appropriate and effective measures to implement the principles and obligations of data protection.

This firstly involves demonstrating compliance externally, and secondly an internal process to create control mechanisms to ensure compliance. It must also be possible to demonstrate these when required to do so by the authorities.

The Article 29 Working Party propossed to include this principle of accountability in the review process of the Data Protection Directive.

Companies are responsible for respecting the privacy of their clients and users. For this reason, companies have been called on for some time now to take an active part in designing these services and platforms.

One example of this can be seen in Privacy Enhancing Technologies. The Data Protection Directive establishes the processing controller's obligation to put in place technical and organisational measures that will guarantee an appropriate degree of security. These Privacy Enhancing Technologies are technological measures aimed at protecting the right to privacy by deleting personal data or preventing data from being unnecessary processed. These systems have been supported by the European Commission.

Also of unquestionable importance is Privacy By Design, which requires privacy protection measures to be in place from the initial design phase of systems or services, thus guaranteeing the privacy and protection of personal data.

Within Privacy by Design, Privacy Impact Assessment methods have an ever greater presence. These are a process to determine the privacy, confidentiality and security risks associated with personal data processing. They also define measures to reduce and eliminate these risks.


Finally, we must ask ourselves if existing data protection legislation is able to deal with these new challenges. Over the years, a series of legal instruments have been created to protect privacy: some of the most significant of these being Convention 108 for the Protection of Individuals with regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data, the OECD Guidelines on the Protection of Privacy and the APEC Privacy Framework. The United Nations also approved guidelines on computerised personal data files in 1990.

Data protection has achieved significant importance in Europe under the Treaty of Lisbon. The European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights and Article 16 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union introduce a new legal basis for data protection, applicable to any kind of processing.

Personal data processing is also regulated by Directive 1995/46/CE on Data Protection. This Directive is technologically neutral and provides a reference model for good practice at an international level. However, it is technologically obsolete. For this reason it is so relevant to revise this legal framework.

The Article 29 Working Party has actively participated in the process to review this Directive. In its Opinion (WP168) from December 2009, it analysed the Directive and put forward a series of recommendations. The main message of this was that the principles of data protection are still valid, but they may benefit from being better applied. The Working Party used this opportunity to:

• Clarify the application of some key regulations and principles of data protection (consent and transparency).

• Overhaul the framework to introduce additional principles (privacy by design and accountability).

• Make the system more efficient by modernising provisions by cutting red tape.

Outside the EU, there are different data protection regulations. Mexico is one of the latest country to have adopted a new data protection law. Uruguay, Peru and Russia have also  adopted their own laws while others are working to develop new legislation on this issue.

But the territorial limitations of the current systems require us to reflect on the need for a comprehensive data protection framework, which will cover these new situations but also future situations.

The ongoing differences in terms of data protection, and especially the lack of guarantees in many countries, lead to reduced protection of individual rights. This harms the exchange of personal data and prevents a sufficient and effective level of data protection from becoming universal.

Data Protection Authorities from around the world, which meet during the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy, have in recent years expressed a constant concern about the problems stemming from the different protection regimes existing in different geographical areas, including the fact that some countries or areas have no data protection or privacy regulation whatsoever.


This growing interest culminated in the 31st International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy, which approved the Madrid Resolution on International Privacy Standards.

This Joint Proposal for Setting International Standards on Privacy was not an international agreement, nor a binding legal regulation. However, its value and relevance as a reference text comes from the fact that the international data protection community participated greatly in creating it, and it includes elements that are present in all data protection systems currently in force. This text was of course supported by all the Authorities participating in the International Conference.

This Joint Proposal aims,

- Firstly, to promote data protection and privacy rights internationally, providing a regulation model that guarantees a high level of protection. It was also designed in a way that meant it could be adopted in any country, with only minimal adaptations that may be required for the purposes of the legal, social or economic cultures of each region.

- Secondly, to help ensure the fluid exchange of personal data internationally. The fact that different national legislations currently exist side by side means that data transfers between countries in different geographical regions can require complex authorisation systems. The situation can be even more complex for multinational corporations, which have to abide by several different regulatory systems, depending on the countries where their various offices are based. This generates obstacles and delays in international data flow, additional costs for companies and an imbalance in terms of competitiveness.

In this sense, the Joint Proposal for Setting Standards establishes a universal model for what can be considered to be an appropriate level of protection, and makes it possible to carry out data transfers with a minimal level of formalities between countries or entities with protection systems that are in line with this model.

The Proposal also incorporates principles, rights and concepts that are common to the main international instruments on data protection and privacy.

It is clear that the Internet's development is unstoppable, both in terms of technical quality and the evolution of user services and functions. Technology gives people power, and increases development possibilities. For this reason, it is essential that development is accompanied by rules that govern its proper use.

Regional legislation, including European legislation, may provide answers, but in practice technology and globalisation oblige us to create standards that ensure a satisfactory level of protection worldwide.

Data protection will always be a "work in progress" that must keep pace with the new trends that are taking place continuously in the digital environment.