Tuesday, 25 June 2013

European citizens can’t agree on how much privacy matters

An interesting new survey from our chums at Big Brother Watch shows just how differently European citizens feel about their online privacy, even though the privacy laws around Europe are broadly the same.

Of course the laws are not identical. But they’re not hugely different. Most of the differences are administrative in nature and are of limited interest to anyone other than the data protection anoraks.

But what is surprising is how much people’s attitudes to privacy varies – and I’ve been wondering whether identical European privacy laws (which is what those promoting a Regulation want) would alter attitudes to privacy to the extent that the citizens thought more along the same lines. 

And I really doubt it.

The chart I’ve shown today comes from a survey, recently carried out for Big Brother Watch by that reputable research organisation, ComRes.  People were asked: “How concerned, if at all, are you about your privacy online?”

Evidently, Spanish people are most concerned about their privacy online, while Germans are the least concerned. The chart indicates whether respondents have no opinion (grey); are not at all concerned (dark green); not very concerned (light green); fairly concerned (pink); or very concerned (red).

But does this chart actually tell us much? I’d be happy to bet that it would look pretty similar if the question had been changed to: “How concerned, if at all, are you about your national economy?”

Are we to take it, from these statistics, that a generation of Spanish and French regulators have done an awful job to uphold decent privacy standards in their respective countries, and that only concerted action from the Commission can save Europe from a privacy catastrophe?  I think not.

Instead, what I think the survey is shows us is that there are different cultural attitudes towards privacy, despite the work that regulators have done to encourage and cajole data controllers to improve their data handling standards. The current rules have, after all, been in place for a mighty long time.

So, in my humble opinion, people have views on privacy that derive more heavily from national cultures than on the basis of national laws. 

And if, as is my view,  a European Regulation is unlikely to result in a narrowing of European attitudes towards privacy, then not a lot will be lost if there is no Regulation.