Photographer: Mike Kane/Bloomberg

U.K. Proposes Law Letting Citizens Erase Personal Data on Web

  • Law would bring U.K. ‘in line’ with Europe rules after Brexit
  • Bill would give consumers more control over internet data

The devil’s bargain underlying the internet economy is that people get free usage of websites such as Google and Facebook in exchange for letting companies collect all sorts of personal data that can be used to sell advertising and other services.

But in recent years European governments have pushed back, arguing the balance of the trade has gotten overly skewed in favor of giant technology companies.

In the latest example, the U.K. is proposing a new privacy law that aims to make it easier for citizens to erase personal data and old pictures from Facebook Inc., Google and other internet sites. The ruling Conservative Party, in its campaign platform this year, pledged to give people more control of their online personal information.

The proposed law, which needs approval from Parliament, would give people stronger rights to seek the removal of online browsing data, according to a document released Monday by the U.K. Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Parents also would be given more authority to control what data is collected about their children. Companies would be required to end the practice of collecting people’s online data by default unless a user opts out.

The U.K. has been a less antagonistic regulator of internet companies than governments such as Spain and France. A landmark European Union court decision in 2014 determined people have a so-called right to be forgotten when internet companies post results that are outdated or irrelevant. A separate data-protection law to be implemented next year within the EU adds additional privacy standards.

‘More Control’

With the U.K. scheduled to leave the EU in early 2019, the new proposal will bring its data-privacy regulations more in line with other countries in the region.

“It will give people more control over their data, require more consent for its use, and prepare Britain for Brexit,” Matt Hancock, minister of state for digital, said in a statement. The Culture Department didn’t specify a timeline for its passage through Parliament.

Internet companies and free-speech advocates have battled right-to-be-forgotten proposals around the world, saying the regulations create a form of online censorship while also being logistically difficult to implement. Google is presently fighting French regulators who want the European policy extended globally, meaning a person in Europe could have data erased from all search results everywhere, not just the local French site. Google has argued such a step would set a dangerous precedent other countries will follow.

‘Right Balance’

According to company data, Google receives a few hundred requests per day to remove URLs. It accepts about 43 percent of those requests.

The government initiative won a key endorsement from the biggest British trade association.

“This legislation strikes the right balance in improving standards of protection while still enabling businesses to explore new products and services,” Tom Thackray, innovation director at the Confederation of British Industry, said in an emailed statement. Firms know that the “ability to innovate is dependent on customers having confidence that their information is well protected.”

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