As the proposed EU Data Protection Regulation winds its way through the law-making process in Brussels, there is no shortage of commentary and discourse. Politicians try to score points with their constituencies or simply represent the platforms they ran on. Activists and advocates attempt to protect the privacy of what they view as the average citizen. Industry voices, both domestic and foreign, lobby for less restrictive measures.
However, while teaching data protection law at various European universities and serving as senior privacy counsel at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati in Brussels, Christopher Kuner has long seen “a lack in Brussels of a more objective, neutral platform to examine legal issues” in the privacy sphere.
That’s the driver behind his cofounding, with Free University of Brussels (VUB) Prof. Paul De Hert, of the Brussels Privacy Hub, a new academic research institute that is an entity of the VUB and will focus on legal issues in privacy, while bringing in ideas from the worlds of computer science, economics, sociology and a host of others. The Hub will have a global scope as well and examine issues outside EU law, including such things as the impact of data protection law on the work of international humanitarian organizations.
“We need an entity that can really serve as a platform for more neutral, substantive privacy law research,” said Kuner during an interview in his offices, kitty-corner from the EDPS offices. “The level of the debate concerning legal issues of data protection regulation isn’t as high as it could be.”
On October 28, the Hub held its first public event, a workshop on the proposed Regulation, coinciding with a special issue of International Data Privacy Law. A selection of leading academics and Waltraud Kotschy, former Austrian DPA, presented thoughts on the proposed regulation that Kuner described as provocative and beyond the standard discourse.
For instance, De Hert’s paper on the seemingly forgotten use of criminal sanctions in the data protection arena. Or the paper from Peter Blume pointing out that there will still be considerable diversity among national data protection systems despite the use of a regulation.
All of the slides from the event are online and available for download.
De Hert is well-known in the privacy community for his part in founding the CPDP conference, and the Privacy Hub’s growing advisory board is stocked with other veteran voices from the community, including Belgian Privacy Commission President Willem Debeuckelaere, University of California-Berkeley Prof. Paul Schwartz, MasterCard CPO and IAPP board member JoAnn Stonier and Information Accountability Foundation Executive Director and former IAPP board member Martin Abrams. The Hub will soon be adding further names to the advisory board from the NGO and nonlegal academic communities.
Further, the Hub already has a good group of young researchers working up new projects, Kuner said. They cover a wide spectrum, looking at everything from corporate data governance to fundamental rights to technological issues. Most importantly, Kuner reiterated, there is no preset agenda or desired outcome, and the Hub will avoid any kind of “lobbying.” And they hope to keep their funding sources diverse—projects from EU and member state sources, unrestricted grants from the private sector and the like—to preserve that objectivity.
The big question, of course, is whether the research the Hub churns out will have any effect on actual policy-making. Kuner notes that the EU government has a history of commissioning research and that academics often contribute to policy-making discourse. But he wonders how much of that research just gets filed away and never referenced again. Do the policy-makers and academic researchers really talk?
“We’d like to bridge that gap,” said Kuner, “and get outside of the formal process of doing studies … When I speak to people in the EU institutions, they say, ‘We get all these papers from companies and business associations. Why can’t they be more objective?’ So I feel like there’s a need for what we’re doing. I think if we can get the two worlds talking to each other, that would be a victory.”
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