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Sunday, February 3, 2013

Data Protection Laws, an Ocean Apart

Data Protection Laws, an Ocean Apart

Victo Ngai

OVER the years, the United States and Europe have taken different approaches toward protecting people’s personal information. Now the two sides are struggling to bridge that divide.

Q. and A. With Viviane Reding

Viviane Reding, the vice president of the European Commission and the justice commissioner of the European Union, discusses trans-Atlantic data protection issues.

On this side of the Atlantic, Congress has enacted a patchwork quilt of privacy laws that separately limit the use of Americans’ medical records, credit reports, video rental records and so on. On the other side, the European Union has instituted more of a blanket regulatory system; it has a common directive that gives its citizens certain fundamental rights â€" like the right to obtain copies of records held about them by companies and institutions â€" that Americans now lack.

Even so, United States officials maintain that the divergent approaches are equal. “The sum of the parts of U.S. privacy protection is equal to or greater than the single whole of Europe,” says Cameron F. Kerry, general counsel of the Commerce Department. He is overseeing an agency effort to help develop voluntary, enforceable codes of conduct for industry groups, like app developers, whose collection and use of consumer data are now unregulated.

Europe begs to differ.

“Yes, we share the basic idea of privacy,” says Peter Hustinx, Europe’s data protection supervisor. “But there is a huge deficit on the U.S. side.”

Alas, the data-control divide appears to be widening.

A year ago, the European Commission proposed comprehensive reforms to strengthen online privacy rights â€" changes that could have big repercussions for American technology companies and marketers that operate in the European Union. American officials, trade groups and tech executives have responded by taking frequent treks to Brussels and other cities, where they have urged regulators and legislators to reconsider the one-regulation-fits-all-data approach. What’s at stake, American industry representatives say, is nothing less than a free and commerce-friendly Internet.

“The ecosystem of the Internet is very delicate,” says Kevin Richards, senior vice president of federal government affairs at TechAmerica, a trade group that represents companies like Google and Microsoft. “It’s not wise to have an overly broad, prescriptive, one-size-fits-all approach that would hinder or undermine the ability of companies to innovate in a global economy.”

European Union members already have data protection laws in place, based on a directive from 1995 that laid out principles for the collection of personal information. The proposed new rules would strengthen some existing provisions. They would standardize data protections across the 27 member states. They would also provide some new rights, such as “data portability” â€" the right of consumers to easily transfer their text files, photographs and videos from one social network, or e-mail or cloud storage service, to another. And they would subject companies that violate the rules to penalties of up to 2 percent of their annual global revenue.

Asked for comment, Viviane Reding, the vice president of the European Commission and the architect of the proposed regulation, said in a statement: “The main problem is that our rules predate the digital age and it became increasingly clear in recent years that they needed an update.” She continued: “That is why I have proposed a root-and-branch reform of the E.U.’s data protection rules â€" currently under discussion in the European Parliament and the Council of the E.U. â€" that will both protect citizens’ rights and facilitate business in the digital age.”

BUT some provisions seem too rigid to United States officials and trade groups. They argue that the American approach â€" sector-specific privacy laws, in addition to industry self-regulation and enforcement by the Federal Trade Commission â€" is more nimble.

“We hope that Europe will move in the direction of those multistakeholder standards, and not standards which are not flexible and don’t move at Internet speed,” says Mr. Kerry, who has taken at least four trips to European cities in the last year to discuss these issues.

From the perspective of some European legislators, however, United States representatives seem more interested in protecting commerce than consumers. The full-court American effort may have backfired, they say, pushing some European officials toward even broader measures. Last month, Jan Philipp Albrecht, a representative of the European Parliament who reviewed the draft regulation, proposed additional rights for citizens â€" like the right not to be subject to consumer profiling.

“My impression is that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Commerce Department are mostly just following the interests of Silicon Valley,” he says. “This leads to heavy pressure on the European regulator, I can say.”

But Mr. Kerry says the United States must make its views known if the systems are to work in concert.

“I know that some people have raised eyebrows at our involvement; I make no apologies,” Mr. Kerry says. “We in the United States and countries and businesses around the world are stakeholders in this process. This has an important impact on the global economy.”

The solution to this trans-Atlantic clash may simply be American ingenuity.

Last year, President Barack Obama proposed a “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights” that would give Americans many of the same baseline protections that the draft European rule proposes to reinforce. These include the right of access to records that companies hold about them, the right to correct those records and the right to have limits on the personal data that companies collect and keep. Administration officials said they would work with Congress on legislation based on those rights and to extend oversight to industries not currently covered by federal privacy laws.

A coalition of more than a dozen American advocacy groups said it would send a letter on Monday to senior Obama administration officials, seeking a meeting to ensure that American policy makers’ efforts in Europe “are not averse to the views expressed by the president.” The coalition includes the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Center for Digital Democracy.

“Does the Obama administration really want to be on the opposite side of the European effort to upgrade and modernize its privacy law which is at its core about the protection of a fundamental freedom” asks Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

European officials hold out hope that Congress will enact baseline consumer privacy protections for Americans.

“This development â€" which is much welcomed in Europe â€" shows that we have much in common,” Ms. Reding of the European Commission said in her statement, speaking of the privacy bill of rights. “Convergence is springing up and synergies are possible.”

E-mail: slipstream@nytimes.com.

A version of this article appeared in print on February 3, 2013, on page BU3 of the New York edition with the headline: Data Protection Laws, an Ocean Apart.

Raging (Again) Against the Robots

Raging (Again) Against the Robots

THE robots are coming! Word is they want your job, your life and probably your little dog, too.

A scene from the 1954 film “Tobor the Great.”

Robots have once again gripped the nation’s imagination, stoking fears of displaced jobs and perhaps even a displaced human race. An alarmist segment on “60 Minutes” was only the most vivid of a recent series of pieces in respected magazines and news outlets warning about widespread worker displacement. Professors at Cambridge University and a co-founder of Skype are creating a new Center for the Study of Existential Risk, which would research a “Terminator”-like scenario in which supercomputers rise up and destroy their human overlords, presumably plotting the whole caper in zeros and ones.

In New York alone, there are four plays running this month with themes of cybernetics run amok. One is a revival of “R.U.R.,” a 1920 Czech play that was the granddaddy of the cybernetic revolt genre and that originated the current meaning of the word “robot.”

Such android anxiety has a long history. John Maynard Keynes wrote about “technological unemployment” during the Great Depression. In the Industrial Revolution, disgruntled laborers â€" including the original Luddites â€" smashed automated looms and threshing machines that “stole” their jobs. In the 15th century, scribes protested the printing press, with a futile zeal rivaled perhaps only by that of modern journalists.

Even Aristotle foretold that automation would expunge the need for labor, observing that if “the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves.”

Throughout the 20th century, science fiction writers created pop culture touchstones about technological tyranny. Among the most resonant is Kurt Vonnegut’s 1952 “Player Piano,” about a dystopia in which mechanization has displaced the lower classes and assigned the world’s wealth to engineers and managers.

You might even carbon-date this literary line to the Golem of Prague, a 16th-century Jewish legend about a clay automaton that ultimately destroyed those it was designed to protect. That story, too, recently enjoyed a revival on the New York rialto.

There is something almost Freudian in these robot takeover terrors, which foretell that the technology we fathered will rise up against us, rendering us obsolete or even extinct.

It’s not exactly clear, though, what triggers these fears, which seem to come in both good economic times and bad. It might be actual accelerations in technical change. But Andreas Bauer, an official with the International Federation of Robotics and a German robotics company executive, says that such fears are unheard-of in the equally mechanized economies of contemporary Japan and Europe.

In Japan, he says, people love the anthropomorphic robots that give Americans the willies. Factories in Germany have big, splashy media junkets to announce their latest automation investments, moves their North American counterparts dare not publicly divulge.

Labor also has more protections in these other developed countries, making it harder to fire workers when more efficient manufacturing processes are developed; in fact, labor contracts in Japan have traditionally banned laying off workers displaced by automation. In the 1980s, economists credited these contract provisions with helping make Japanese manufacturing so productive, since workers had an incentive to suggest efficiency improvements.

In hindsight, historical fears of technological change look foolish, given that automation has increased living standards and rendered our workweeks both safer and shorter. In 1900, when nearly half the American labor force was employed in backbreaking agriculture, the typical worker logged 2,300 hours a year, according to Joel Mokyr, an economic historian at Northwestern University. Today that number is 1,800. (If you believe “The Jetsons,” by 2062 we’ll be working only two hours a week; Keynes had similar forecasts.)

That said, creative destruction is undoubtedly painful. Historically, the children of displaced workers have benefited from mechanization, but the displaced workers themselves have often been permanently passé.

“Every invention ever made caused some people to lose jobs,” says Mr. Mokyr. “In a good society, when this happens, they put you out to pasture and give you a golf club and a condo in Florida. In a bad society, they put you on the dole, so you have just enough not to starve, but that’s about it.”

And many economists today believe the transition will be even more difficult this time around.

Erik Brynjolfsson, an economics professor at M.I.T. and co-author of the book “Race Against the Machine,” argues that we have reached a sort of inflection point in productivity growth. It took expensive capital equipment to revolutionize farming and manufacturing; the marginal cost of the technologies (software and so on) producing the most recent gains in efficiency is near zero. Any job that can be reduced to an algorithm will be, leading to the displacement of workers in industries as diverse as retail and radiology.

That’s not to say there will be no new jobs to fill the void: we can scarcely imagine the industries and occupations that will flower as the economy adjusts, just as prior deep thinkers could not have conceived of today’s nanophysicists or social media consultants. The challenge, of course, is training or retraining workers quickly enough to take on new, higher-skilled roles.

An optimist like Mr. Mokyr might note that the economy is actually becoming unusually good at scaling up retraining programs just as we need them most. The technological shocks that have affected manufacturing and office administration, after all, are now infiltrating education: with online courses, an expert can teach 60,000 students at a time rather than the 60 Mr. Mokyr lectured on Tuesday.

Mr. Mokyr is not too worried about what this will mean for his own livelihood, despite the mass layoffs that similar cybernetic developments have wrought over every other industry he has studied.

“I can be displaced by technology, but they still can’t fire me,” he says. “I have tenure.”

Catherine Rampell is an economics reporter and theater critic for The New York Times.

A version of this news analysis appeared in print on February 3, 2013, on page SR4 of the New York edition with the headline: Raging (Again) Against the Robots.