UN treaty on privacy possible

17:00, Apr 04 2010
PRIVATE EYE: Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff says calls for global privacy standards and laws are growing.
PRIVATE EYE: Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff says calls for global privacy standards and laws are growing.

A United Nations treaty may be required to protect privacy now that cloud computing, online search engines and the globalisation of direct marketing are resulting in "huge increases in international data flows", says Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff.

Ms Schroff says global privacy standards and enforcement have been discussed by her counterparts in Canada and Australia. China is beginning to consider privacy legislation and calls for better regulation are growing in the United States.

Draft international standards on the protection of privacy were agreed at a privacy commissioners' conference in Madrid in November, but Ms Shroff says these are "very much a work in progress."

Some of the issues a treaty might tackle could include the collection of information by international search engines, the practice of companies contracting call centres in developing countries to carry out international telemarketing, and the protection of personal information when people used credit cards to purchase items from businesses in countries with no privacy law.

"It would also potentially I hope apply to government uses of information as well. One of the drivers of international data flows is [counter] terrorism."

Ms Shroff says multinationals want more rules. Ten corporations including Microsoft, Google, IBM, Walt Disney, Proctor and Gamble and General Electric signed a letter calling for international privacy standards before the Madrid conference, she says.

"The reason for this is they would bring legal certainty. Far from it being some sort of a bureaucratic initiative to impose more regulation on business, businesses are recognising this is a highly volatile environment and they are particularly focused on the fact many developing companies do not have privacy regulation or laws and it is hard for them to operate their businesses in this very varied world.

"We have to look at whether and how we can regulate to provide certainty for businesses and protections for individual citizens. New Zealand is on the working group that is looking at what the next steps might be toward some form of global privacy regulation."

A UN treaty was one option. Another might be guidelines from an organisation such as APEC.

The US Federal Trade Commission is considering establishing a "Global Privacy Enforcement Network" to co-ordinate international enforcement.

AFP reported Microsoft and Google had joined US privacy groups and academics in establishing a "Digital Due Process Coalition" that has petitioned federal law makers in Washington to give personal information stored online privacy protections that are on a par with letters or pictures kept in homes.

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