By Ivan Vandermeersch, General Secretary of the BDMA (Belgian Direct Marketing Association)
Dear Mr. Zuckerberg,
California. You created it with your Harvard College roommates and fellow students. It was gradually joined by students at various other universities and high-school students. Since 2006, anyone can register on Facebook depending on local law. Nowadays almost every citizen using a computing device is a “Facebooker”.
Let me go back to the old days. In Greek mythology, Icarus is the son of Daedalus. With his father he attempts to escape from Crete by means of wings constructed from feathers and wax. Icarus’s father asks him not to fly too high, so the sun’s heat will not melt his wings. Icarus ignores his father’s instructions. The wax in his wings melts and he falls into the sea.
Like Icarus Facebook is flying above a Data Tsunami. 90% of data worldwide has been created in the past two years. Citizens have also become data users.
We citizens create data ourselves, also through our Facebook interactions. This data contains highly detailed information about individuals’ interests, networks, habits and behaviour. This is used by businesses to initiate a customization process: the creation of highly tailored products. Personalised products. The economy is data driven. More and more. With data as added value. Therefore organizations are expected to treat customer and prospect data with the utmost care and respect. With the highest care for the citizen’s privacy expectations.
Going against the stream is pointless. Able citizens are more than consumers. They are also editors on blogs. Through social networks we have evolved to a conversation society between businesses and consumers and among citizens.
However, the challenge remains to strike the right balance between the interests of consumers and businesses and between prohibiting and authorising access to data. Privacy is no longer only a matter of protection, but it is growing into a challenge when it comes to offering opportunities. Because our society today is a data society.
Personal relations last longest if individuals and their privacy are respected. The major challenge for businesses is to make this relation with citizens transparent, so that economic development can go hand in hand with consumer interests. Politics must safeguard citizens’ freedoms. The citizen should have access privacy policies providing an explanation relating to the processing of personal data for marketing purposes and their contact details enabling customers and prospects to interact with the organization. Where possible, the citizen should be given the possibility to express their preferences in receiving commercial communication and these should be respected.
As you probably know, the old continent is finalising a new general data protection regulation (GDPR). The European Commission, together with the European Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, is heading towards an agreement, most likely in the first months of 2016. For the moment we have 28 different national views on the subject. Maybe,in a few months, we’ll have, eventually, a European harmonized version. And this is discussed, right now, in Brussels. This is the context in which you are facing a judgement of a Belgian court as a result of proceedings instituted by the Belgian Privacy Commission.
It is in Belgium that Facebook, like Icarus in mythology, is beginning to fly too close to the sun. Belgium is one of the 28 European member states that have to agree on the next GDPR. And the 27 other ones are looking at what is happening in my nice country.
The Belgian Privacy Commission is member of the Article 29 Working Party, put in place by Article 29 of the Data Protection Directive (95/46/EC), composed of a representative from the data protection authority of each EU Member State, the European Data Protection Supervisor and the European Commission. Its missions are to advise member states on data protection, promote the same application of the Data Protection Directive in all EU member states and provide the Commission with opinions on community legislation regarding data protection on a permanent basis. To do so, it is also monitoring the Facebook court proceedings in Belgium in the current legislative process!
Moreover, European data protection legislation is often a source of inspiration for other continents and countries. With pieces of European legislation almost being copied in legislative documents on other continents. In that respect, European legislation is somehow an early warning for what could happen in the rest of the world. And Facebook is a worldwide company…
This is how a bunch of local freaks can impact worldwide legislation. With a Privacy Commission that is very combative. In the only country in the world that has a Secretary of State dedicated to privacy. With an obvious focus is when working with his 27 European colleagues. Belgium could become a worldwide example.
It is also a matter of creating a competitive framework where companies worldwide respect the same rules as those applying to companies established in Europe.
It is about a reasonably simple choice between two paths. Either Facebook goes down the path of the endless legal proceedings, taking the risk of getting all kinds of legislative and court boomerangs right back at it. Or it abandons the legal proceedings and fights for reasonable legislation with a fair balance between the industry and the citizen, between allowing and prohibiting, on speaking terms with authorities and regulators to ensure that personal data are handled with care that the citizens’ future privacy remains guaranteed. A train Facebook had better catch.
Because good marketing is based on respect of the citizen’s privacy, trust and transparency, the principle that direct marketing is respect marketing, which is the best way to establish a long-term relationship with the consumer or citizen.
It is simply about the sustainability of the digital economy. Let’s go for it!