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EU Data Protection: Imminent Threat to Empirical Social and Economic Sciences Averted

Following long negotiations, the European Union has reached an agreement on pan-European data protection standards on 15th December 2015 which will supersede existing national data protection regulation. A compromise was reached in the course of the trilogue negotiations between the drafts by the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the European Council. The present legal text now takes central demands of the empirical social, behavioural, and economic sciences into account and does not, as previously feared, fall behind existing legislation.

The German Data Forum has supported the reform of the EU data protection legislation since the beginning of the political process in close coordination with other national and European science organizations. It has published several statements in close exchange with members of the European Parliament demanding to incorporate the specific requirements of science and research. The German Data Forum welcomes that the European Parliament’s draft, which was overly restrictive towards science and research, did not prevail in the course of the trilogue negotiations. The position held by the German Data Forum was successful and the foundations for empirical research were secured.

To secure the standards for empirical social and economic research as well as evidence-based policy advising, it is necessary to ensure that subsequent processing of data for scientific purposes is permitted beyond its original purpose of collection. The present draft of the EU data protection legislation provides a legal basis for this in that it regulates re-use of sensitive data for scientific purposes and the standards for consent in a research-friendly way.
The German Data Forum welcomes the formulation of Article 83 which specifies legal rules for research. “Anonymization” and “Pseudonymization” have been included as appropriate measures for data protection which facilitates in-depth analysis and – in the case of “Pseudonymization” – linking of data sets.Moreover, Article 83 provides for national derogations, i.e. provisions for legal exceptions on a national level. It remains to be seen how these will be picked up by national legislature and interpreted in court decisions.The regulation has to be formally adopted by the European Parliament and the European Council beginning of next year. According to the current schedule the EU data protection regulation will take effect Europe-wide at the beginning of 2016 and, after the designated two-year transition phase, fully replace the current directive 95/46/EG (Data Protection Directive).

The European data protection law strengthens research on a European level and the establishment of a common European research area. However, science and research need to be active and vigilant in the current phase and make sure to win recognition for their demands during the implementation of the regulation as well as in the national derogations. The German Data Forum will continue to critically evaluate European and German data protection law and court decisions. It recommends creating an Advisory Board for Scientific Data Use to institutionalize this process on a European level and to secure European-wide standardization and the joint advocacy of the scientific community’s interests.