Asian countries more open to data-driven innovation than Europe, Google's privacy chief says

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 June, 2015, 4:35pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 August, 2015, 11:56am

Too many rules are hampering the development of internet services in Europe, whereas many Asian countries are more open to change, especially in the realm of data-driven innovation, according to a top Google executive.

In fact, this field will play a critical role in the economic development of the Asia-Pacific region for years to come, Peter Fleischer, Google’s global privacy counsel, told the South China Morning Post.

“I will say Asia Pacific – and the US too – is more open to data-driven innovation than Europe,” said the search engine’s point man for global privacy issues. He arrived in Hong Kong this week to attend several internet policy conferences. 

On the issue of data protection, he said more time would be required before the European model could be fairly judged in terms of whether it had found the correct balance when it comes to respecting users’ privacy. 

The so-called “right to be forgotten” gives users the freedom to potentially have their information removed from the internet. 

The practice has been upheld in Europe for about a decade but was not strongly enforced until last year, and even then mainly in EU countries.

It has since become a hot button topic in various industry circles. 

In May 2014, the European Court of Justice ruled that Google must remove links to websites that contain “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” content from its search service if users make such a request.

The move was met with mixed feedback. Some analysts hailed it as a milestone on the path to greater freedom; other decried how it could enable criminals or other wrongdoers to whitewash their pasts.

Hong Kong has also seen calls for the introduction of a similar ruling, with the city's privacy chief Allan Chiang Yam-wang urging Google to globalise its policy back in 2013. However, many pundits doubt it will gain favour in what is widely regarded as Asia’s most international city as it could curtail media freedoms.

“It’s not about (having) data or (protecting) privacy,” said Fleischer. “It’s about how you find the right balance on data and privacy, and what the limit is for you to do with data, when and how you collect, and how long you keep data, and the transmission of data.”

“I see privacy is also a political issue. It’s about how to encourage a new model of business.” 

Privacy issues must also be analysed in a local context due to cultural differences, he said, adding that most Asian countries see less government regulation in sich areas, partly because they are so new to the region. 

One exception would be Hong Kong, where regulations on privacy can be traced back to the late 1980s.

In recent years, countries like Japan, the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia have stepped up their efforts to protect people’s privacy online. At the same time, they seem reluctant to usher in a climate that slows down the development of new online business.

Instead, they are keen to see how the World Wide Web can help with their economic restructuring by making them less reliant on old-fashioned manufacturing and exports. 

China, which has a Great Firewall in place to censor content and also bans popular social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, launched a new campaign called “internet plus” earlier this year to get more traditional businesses online. It was spearheaded by premier Li Keqiang.

Such data-driven innovation, which Google supports, can help multinationals expand their business globally, industry experts say.

Many analysts believe it could also give small businesses a boost by bringing them closer to their communities and clients through data-related business analysis and pitches.

This is because local firms should be more familiar with their clients’ spending behaviour, especially if they live close by. The companies can also make better use of other location-based intelligence such as the movement of online traffic.

Data and privacy have become more pressing concerns recently due to fears stemming from an upsurge in cybersecurity and hacking activities, or at least companies’ and individuals’ awareness of them.

New users are also pouring online every day and utilising a brave new digital world of tools and machinery, a trend facilitated by the rapid ubiquity and development of smartphones. 

Government surveillance for anti-terrorism purposes, especially in the United States and Europe, has also made data collection a hot issue.

Washington will be unlikely to follow the EU’s decision on the “right to be forgotten” matter due to its strong belief in, and protection of, people’s freedom of expression, Fleischer said.

The US Constitution defends media and other freedoms under its famous and oft-quoted First Amendment.