Too Important to Fail – Advancing Digital Values

Last week, in partnership with Carnegie Europe and in association with the Dutch Presidency of the Council of the EU, we hosted the “Digital Values: Advancing Technology, Preserving Fundamental Rights” event at our Microsoft Center to discuss policies for the digital age. EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jourová delivered a keynote speech, as did Microsoft’s President and Chief Legal Officer, Brad Smith.

In his speech, Brad Smith laid out defining issues and opportunities for 2016, most notably the importance of advancing trust in the Internet, technology and the protection of people’s personal data. He stressed that discussions around privacy, including the ongoing Safe Harbor negotiations, are simply “too important to fail”, highlighting the need to protect and advance fundamental rights, technology and the economy as a whole.

Technological innovation, such as cloud computing, can change lives in ways both small and profound, helping governments, businesses and civil society to better serve the world. It is this belief in the transformative power of technology which drove our recent decision to donate $1 billion in Microsoft cloud services to nonprofits and university researchers over the next three years.

To the same extent that technology and the Internet can be used for good, recent tragic events in Paris and elsewhere have also shown a very different side. In fact, “the Internet is where people turn to when they want to shape what happens in the real world, for good or for bad”.

For Smith, there are a few guiding North Stars needed. Firstly, the Internet needs to be governed by law. Secondly, elected governments need to define these laws and strike the right balance between privacy and security. Transparency should form the basis for the actions of both governments and the private sector. The more the public knows about how their data are being used, the more concrete steps can be taken to help people trust technology.

Brad Smith reminded the audience of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s North Star for the company: “Technology needs to advance, but timeless values need to endure”. Based on this, privacy, compliance, transparency and security are the four principles underpinning all of Microsoft’s work, including the architecture of our cloud services. It is also demonstrated by the unprecedented investment we’ve made in data centers around the world and by the new “data trustee” model we’ve launched in Germany, which offers customers choice and trust in how their data is handled and where it is stored.

While choice is important, we need to be mindful that data flows are global, yet privacy laws remain local. This was highlighted by Smith, who pointed out that “we need a world in which people know their rights will be protected, by both their domestic and international law. As the cloud moves around the world, we need to ensure that the law moves with it.”

Smith described several issues and opportunities which need to be addressed in the year ahead. Firstly, a new Safe Harbor agreement. Secondly, an acknowledgement that privacy is a fundamental human right which needs to be the starting-point for any debate about surveillance reform, public safety and the protection of personal data. This can only be advanced with greater transparency – between governments, the private sector and the wider public.

Smith also emphasized the need for a stronger rule of law across the Atlantic and a greater focus on how European data will be protected within Europe. This is an issue Microsoft has continued to raise in the ongoing data warrant case.

Finally, Smith called for continuous efforts to modernize laws on both sides of the Atlantic, so that privacy can be adequately protected in the digital age: “We are trying to address the issues of the current day with laws that have become antiquated. Some things improve with age; technology products and technology laws are seldom among them”.

Last week’s event was a welcome reminder of the need to think about technology and technological innovation, while also grounding ourselves in the values we hold timeless. As we look to develop new solutions and new laws, we should stay focused on the fundamental rights of people, including the right to privacy. This is how we will advance technology, grow the economy and protect people for years to come.


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