In the coalition agreement of early October 2014 and the policy declarations of the various Ministers and Secretaries of State in early November 2014, there is a striking focus on progress in the field of e-commerce and privacy. To that end, and for the first time, a Secretary of State responsible for privacy matters and a Minister with responsibility for the Digital Agenda have been appointed. Here we highlight some of the fields of action mentioned in the coalition agreement and the relevant policy declarations.


E-commerce

Electronic commerce is still limping behind in Belgium. The government wishes to support the development of electronic commerce. It also wants to guarantee optimal use of new technologies by offering more legal certainty when citizens use online services. The federal coalition agreement contains a number of concrete initiatives:

Independent platform for electronic commerce

The government intends to establish an independent platform for electronic commerce that will constitute a supportive framework for the development of e-commerce. Through this framework, the government wants to eliminate a number of obstacles to e commerce and thereby increase the competitiveness of Belgian e-commerce compared to other countries. Planned initiatives include: a reliable online payment platform which can be accepted by all Belgian retailers, better follow-up of complaints, research into the feasibility of a comprehensive and more frequently used system for alternative dispute resolution, the creation of a European level playing field in the area of product safety, etc.

Expansion of the Ethical Code relating to telecommunications to include smartphone applications

The government intends to expand the Ethical Code relating to telecommunications to include smartphone applications. The Ethical Code, established by Royal Decree of 9 February 2011, imposes strict rules on providers of paid services through electronic communications networks, e.g. as regards honesty and transparency, protection of minors, subscription and deregistration and publicity for these services.


Privacy and privacy protection

In the area of data protection, the government has also announced quite a few initiatives. Not only will it endeavour to achieve better protection of personal data stored in databases; the rights of the citizens will also be reinforced based on principles of control, transferability, transparency, security, reasonableness, contextuality and liability. The government will organise roundtable discussions with governments, enterprises and citizens to refine and apply these principles. 

In his policy declaration of 13 November 2014, Bart Tommelein, the Secretary of State responsible for privacy matters put forward six specific challenges. A key question for each of these challenges is how technological progress can be maximised for citizens, the government and the business community, while minimising the risk of abuse. Also interesting is the indication that besides the case law of the European Court of Human Rights, the example of other countries – the Netherlands was mentioned explicitly – will serve as a guideline. The various challenges mentioned in by the Secretary of State are discussed below.

European general data protection regulation

Like the coalition agreement, the policy declaration of the Secretary of State responsible for privacy matters refers several times to the draft general data protection regulation which is currently being discussed at the European level. The new government already announced in the coalition agreement that it would advocate a firmly harmonised European framework in the field of data protection. In the meantime, after a meeting with the president of the Commission for the protection of privacy early November 2014, the Secretary of State noted that the draft regulation leaves room for improvement in several areas. For example, there is no European supervisor competent to act against multinationals such as Facebook. Once the European framework is clear, an adapted and modernised Belgian legislative framework will be developed. The coalition agreement states that data processing must be based as much as possible on the informed consent of the person concerned.

Privacy in the sphere of public security

The Secretary of State will also work on a well-balanced policy, in which privacy does not stand in the way of exploitation of technological possibilities in the sphere of security and administrative services. By way of example, he refers to the opportunities of camera surveillance for cities and municipalities and the use of drones by the police.
 
A reform of the Commission for the protection of privacy is also mentioned, aimed amongst other things at avoiding conflicts of interest between members of the Commission and applicants for authorisations.

Privacy in the sphere of public data

The government intends to link various databases containing a growing volume of data (e.g. consumer data of public utilities, inspection data, etc.) with a view to preventive and proactive combating of social security and tax fraud, for example. However, this would only be possible after performing a balancing exercise, in which the government's power of control is balanced vis-à-vis the privacy rights of citizens. Citizens could be informed once a year of the personal data concerning them which are being processed by the government and the purposes for which they are processed. As much as possible, the informed consent of citizens should be the guiding principle. The concrete development of such a system should be undertaken in consultation with the Minister responsible for the Digital Agenda. Together with the Secretary of State responsible for administrative simplification, it should be verified how privacy and transparency can be reconciled with the reuse of government information.

Privacy in the sphere of private data

The Secretary of State also sees opportunities in the field of open data and big data. Government data on health care, for example, could lead to interesting innovations in the pharmaceutical sector and vice versa. Again, the Secretary of State emphasises that privacy is the most important concern, and he proposes to use anonymised data and "privacy by design" where possible.

The Secretary of State underlines the importance of the classification of data and data flows when evaluating whether the privacy requirements have been met. He wishes to consult the departments concerned on a regular basis in order to avoid hampering economic activities, e.g. in the ICT sector.

In any event, the Secretary of State has already indicated that selling personal data is only authorised with the explicit and informed consent of the person concerned – who, moreover, can withdraw his/her consent at any time. In addition, enterprises should clearly inform their customers of changes in their privacy policy. 

Privacy in the sphere of new media

The Secretary of State has also announced campaigns to raise awareness with respect to the use of social media, which will mainly be targeted at young people. 

Protection of personal data

Finally, attention is also being given to data leaks, which have recently occurred in public services and elsewhere. It will be examined which preventive measures can be taken, such as certification mechanisms ("privacy seals"). The topic of cyber security will be monitored by the Secretary of State both nationally and at the European level.