The EGE was set up in 1991, following a communication from the EU Commission to the European Parliament and Council titled ‘Promoting the competitive environment for industrial activities based on biotechnology within the Community’. The Commission emphasized the need for ethical discussions on the development of biotechnology, thus the need for an ethics body was felt. In the 2005 Commission Decision on the renewal of the mandate of EGE its mission was described:
The task of the EGE shall be to advise the Commission on ethical questions relating to sciences and new technologies, either at the request of the Commission or on its own initiative.
The Opinion aims to ”provide suggestions for an ethically sound use of ICT”. It restricts itself to Internet technology. The Opinion describes its relation with EU legislation as follows:
On 21 March 2011 President José Manuel Barroso asked the EGE to draft an Opinion on the ethical issues arising from the rapid expansion of information and communication technologies (ICT). President Barroso indicated that the Opinion could ‘offer a reference point to the Commission to promote a responsible use of the Digital Agenda for Europe and facilitate the societal acceptance of such an important policy item.
The Opinion wishes to describe ethical concerns:
The debate on ethics and governance of ICT is complex and needs to address a wide range of considerations, values and principles, such as: autonomy; identity; privacy and trust; responsibility; justice and solidarity.
The concept of identity has a crucial place in the Opinion. Although it recognizes that “digital identity” encompasses matters that concern the identification of a person, it stresses that this is not enough. Also important is our identity as a person (Paragraph 3.1.3).
This addition makes the Opinion very relevant for our document since it transgresses the simple, partially economically motivated data protection line of analysis.
This first area of ethical concern that needs to be addressed in further research is what we call the change in the personal and social identity. Being shaped and shaping one’s identity in the digital era means, for example, that a person’s self‑perception is likely to change when identity markers such as age, gender, ethnicity, language and culture do not constrain individuals in creating their social identity. When engaging in social relationships on the web, individuals can choose and actually create new identities, from the use of pseudonyms to the invention of whole characters in
online communities. Offline and online identities may vary radically, although both aspects are integrated in one self‑concept. While the new narrative construction of identity may well be experienced as liberation from social ascription, it changes the very nature of our personal identities, and as such it needs to be addressed.
Finally the “data subject” is seen as a creator of dynamic content and a participator in dynamic communications that change them and that they change in return:
The effect on the concept of personal identity has been described in the context of social studies that examine the de‑centred self, together with a certain tendency of the ‘fluidity’ of modern social relations. The digital self, too, can be described in this line of thought. Its relevance for ethical reflection lies in its impact on the traditional concepts of ‘authenticity’ and ‘autonomy’: fluid or hybrid identities may threaten the consistency and continuity that has been considered to be crucial for the concept of a practical identity, which ultimately relies upon a self that may not only identify with his or her actions but is also identified by others. Hence, the new possibilities for shaping one’s own identity, constrained only by the features and rules of the programs one uses, make social relationships potentially insecure; ethical concepts such as trust, truthfulness or reliability may lose their function to create spheres of belonging — while at the same time enforcing short‑term relationships that can easily be replaced.
The Opinion warns that since the digital identity may be completely disconnected from real life perceptions that are a part of offline communication the concept of “fixed identities” undegoes corrosion and that authenticity and accountibility might need new consideration.
The Opinion signals that Internet’s memory transform the normally synchronic communication to a diachronic communication: original entries can be accessed by third parties outside of their original context that is framed in history. This is a radical change because both memory and forgetting used to be complementary concepts for personal identity.
When considering friendship the Opinion sees a radical re-interpretation going on. Friendship, “one of the most important moral institutions, the personal relation and interaction between individuals who know each other, share interests and shape personal responsibilities”, can have a very different meaning online: a contact in a social network “with whom one barely shares more than a loose sense of belonging to the same Internet community”.
The Opinion fears that ICT may may forge new collective identities that are gained or maintained “by re-introducing forms of inclusion and exclusion”. This could lead to disrespect for other groups and discrimination.
The Opinion concludes:
the Internet is not an ethically neutral sphere but a sphere of social interaction that necessarily creates values and norms, so that much effort must be put in communicating the European values and normative principles of action, from the respect of dignity and rights, to non‑discrimination and particular protection of vulnerability.
The Opinion also re-interprets the concept of privacy:
privacy has changed over time by giving shape ultimately to a right that is increasingly geared towards enabling the free construction of one’s personality — the autonomous building up of one’s identity, and the projection of fundamental democratic principles into the private sphere.
The Opinion signalizes that the new online options create the opportunity not only to violate another person’s dignity but also one’s own dignity, for instance by oversharing intimate information. With regard to the household exemption (see above) the Opinion recommends [consistent with the Future of Privacy document (see above)]:
whoever offers services to a private individual should be required to provide certain safeguards regarding the security and, as appropriate, the confidentiality of the information uploaded, regardless of whether their client is a data controller.
With regard to sensitive data the Opinion wonders whether genetic data and biometric data should not be explicitly included in this category. Furthermore, the Opinion discusses the concepts of consent, transparency, mandatory breach notification, the right to access, rectify, dete and block one’s own data and the right to be forgotten.
On the topic of special protection for minors the Opinion states:
In the online context, children deserve specific protection, as they may be less aware of risks, consequences, safeguards and rights in relation to the processing of personal data. Children tend to underestimate risks linked to using the Internet and minimise the consequences of their behaviour. The lack of general rules on this in the existing legal framework leads to a fragmented approach and does not recognise the need for specific protection of children in specific circumstances, because of their vulnerability, and because it causes legal uncertainty, particularly as regards the way children’s consent is obtained. Harmonising the conditions for allowing children and minors to exercise their rights at EU level, especially with regard to the age threshold, would certainly bring additional guarantees. It should also cover the requirement to use online age verification mechanisms.
Of all the European legislative-related documents this Opinion is the closest to the IDentifEYE project. Its holistic approach both of identity and privacy lies at the core of the IDentifEYE game and lesson program. The Opinion and the game and lesson program cover similar subjects: peer-to-peer and user-to-application data sharing, online friendship and love, one’s own identity and third-party identities.
Unfortunately, the Opinion is no legal basis (yet) for European legislation concerning the rights of children.